Welcome back loyal 5thDownFantasy readers! With Week 12 officially in the books we’re now getting a clearer look at who the division leaders and playoff teams will be in the NFL. As the fantasy/real life playoffs continue to draw closer the stars are aligning for some key individuals down the stretch. This week’s recap features the usual mix of established names and refreshing newcomers, so let’s meet the gang:
AMARI COOPER (Dallas Cowboys)
Cowboys fans had plenty to be thankful for this past Thursday on Thanksgiving. Their team slayed the division leading Washington Redskins to claim the NFC East throne, and their 1st round investment in Amari Cooper was a major reason why it happened.
When Jerry Jones gave up a 1st round pick for Cooper it lit social media on fire with memes, laughing GIF’s and a seemingly endless string of hot takes about how bad a move it was. I was one of the people who believed it was a poor choice, and yet I can’t deny the results. Since arriving and being integrated into the Cowboys offense Cooper has become a completely different player. He’s routinely flashed route running ability we rarely saw in Oakland, and he’s created a rapport with Dak Prescott that’s made him the 3rd year QB’s favorite option.
In the four games since being traded from the Raiders, Cooper has posted fantasy totals of (11/7/3/30) and averaged 60 yards and roughly a touchdown per contest. His target share started high (8 targets in his first game) and has stayed in that ballpark since (10/5/9 targets) in subsequent match-ups. Never was that more evident than this past Thursday in Jerry world. Cooper took in 8 receptions on 9 targets for an astounding 180 yards/2 TDs against an impressive Redskins secondary. Cooper flashed his speed and elusiveness on both scores; catching each ball in coverage and simply slipping a tackle and outrunning the entire secondary.
By comparison, Cooper is a 110% upgrade over any of the receiving options Dallas had prior to his arrival, and he’s made the Cowboys a much more versatile team on the offensive side of the ball. The 1st round pick jokes will likely persist until he does this for a longer stretch of time, but Cooper’s been very impressive in his first month in big D.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY (Carolina Panthers)
The Carolina Panthers scored 27 points on Sunday. Christian McCaffrey scored more than half of them by himself. The 2nd year prodigy out of Stanford had the game of his life against the Seahawks, shredding Seattle’s defense (28 touches/237 YDs/2 TDs) and giving his team a chance to get a W.
Barring a kicking mishap it would be fair to say that McCaffrey would have been credited with winning the Panthers this game single handedly, he was just that unstoppable. It’s telling that in a league that’s rife with dual threat backs, McCaffrey’s performance stood out as spectacular. He may not have the raw power of a Gurley/Hunt or the size of Elliot/Barkley, but you’d be a fool to judge CMC by his size.
McCaffrey showed off exactly why he was hailed as one of the best all-purpose players in the 2017 draft by executing both on the ground and through the air on Sunday. His ground game numbers (17 Car/125 Yds/TD) were 2nd only to his (28 Car/184 Yds) performance in Week 3, but in a way what he accomplished this week was even more impressive. CMC did more with less on the ground in Week 12, cutting Seattle up for well over 100 yards on 11 less carries than he got in Week 3.
His ceiling has yet to be reached from a rushing perspective, and when you combine that with his receiving performance (11 Rec/112 Yds/TD) you get a player that you would think was created in a lab somewhere. McCaffrey’s 11 receptions came on 11 targets, meaning he not only put up major numbers on the Seahawks, he did it flawlessly. That’s the portion of CMC’s game that impresses me the most, his catch rate is the 2nd best in the league among eligible receivers behind only the catch king himself, Michael Thomas. You were starting McCaffrey before this week anyway, but I figured it was well worth reminding owners exactly what kind of player they have on their hands.
Here are McCaffrey’s game logs since Week 1 of this year if you need any more convincing:
Week 1: 9 Target/6 Receptions
Week 2: 15 Target/14 Receptions
Week 3: 2 Target/2 Receptions
Week 4: Bye
Week 5: 6 Target/5 Receptions
Week 6: 8 Target/7 Receptions
Week 7: 6 Target/6 Receptions
Week 8: 6 Target/4 Receptions
Week 9: 5 Target/5 Receptions
Week 10: 8 Target/6 Receptions
Week 11: 11 Target/11 Receptions
Christian McCaffrey catch rate: 86%
Michael Thomas catch rate: 88%
JOSH ADAMS (Philadelphia Eagles)
Josh Adams was many things in Week 12. He was the ultimate fantasy waiver wire pick-up, the Eagles lead back, and the savior of a season that felt completely lost for the defending Super Bowl Champions.
The former Notre Dame standout started the 2018 campaign buried on the Eagles practice squad behind the team’s trio of Super Bowl backs (Jay Ajayi/Corey Clement), and Wendell Smallwood. Adams had impressed the coaching staff and fan-base alike during the preseason, but he started the year watching from the sidelines until fate intervened. Due to an unfortunate injury to Ajayi and a general lack of a production from Smallwood/Clement, Adams’ number was finally called with Philadelphia growing restless and the Eagles season on the brink of collapse.
Adams responded to this pressure with pure, game breaking ability and a penchant for breaking long runs. Since his official debut in the offense against the Jaguars in Week 8, Adams has shown himself to be the most consistent back on the Eagles roster, and he’s helped the champs start to rediscover their identity from last season in the process. That identity was on full display this past Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles were playing from behind for the majority of the contest, but they saw a weakness in the Giants run defense and exploited it by using Adams as both an open field rusher and a goal line battering ram. His stat line (22 Car/84 Yds/TD) doesn’t immediately fly off the screen, but it’s what Adams did with those carries that translated to the Eagles victory in Week 12.
Adams showed the grit to get an extra yard when it was needed, and the ability to break a momentum shifting run in the same breath. He may not have been the Eagles first, second or third choice at RB to start the year, but it looks like the champs have found their workhorse for the 2nd half of the season. For fantasy purposes that clears up one of the more muddled backfield committees in the league, and it gives those who took a chance on Adams bragging rights. He’s a bonified waiver wire darling moving forward.
JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Even in a losing effort JuJu Smith-Schuster was an absolute lightning rod. It’s games like Sunday that make the 2nd year wide-out one of the most dynamic/popular players in the league, and at the same time one of the most often overlooked talents on a weekly basis.
Admittedly, playing a supporting role in a cast that includes the greatest wide receiver of a generation (Antonio Brown) can’t be easy, but JuJu makes strides towards mass appeal on a near weekly basis. His ability to make plays on the ball in midair betrays his age (20), and his speed in the open field makes him a player who’s very quickly letting the league know he can do it all. His stat line of (13 Rec/189 Yds/TD) from this Sunday’s game at Mile High highlighted every special quality that Smith-Schuster possesses. From his now trademark breakaway speed on a 97-yard catch and run touchdown, to his growing trust with Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (17 targets), JuJu continues to wow audiences and defenses alike.
You were already starting him as a high level WR2 in fantasy, and I see no reason to doubt him moving forward. He’s scored double digit points in 3 straight contests and caught 24 balls on a staggering 32 targets in those 3 games. JuJu’s a locked and loaded asset for the Steelers AND your fantasy team for the long haul.
AUSTIN EKELER (Los Angeles Chargers)
Austin Ekeler’s 2018 stat line (so far):
70 Car/409 Yds/TD
32 Rec/354 Yds/3 TDs
It’s a testament to Ekeler’s abilities that even in the presence of one of the league’s premiere backs (Melvin Gordon) he’s been able to produce fantasy-worthy numbers on a near weekly basis in the Chargers offense.
Earlier in the season I hailed the duo of Gordon/Ekeler as one of the top backfield tandems in the league (on par with Kamara/Ingram and White/Michel), and that praise has only become more fitting as the season’s drawn on. Only now things are set to change in a big way for Ekeler. Due to the unfortunate/untimely MCL injury to Gordon, Ekeler is now being thrust into the RB1 position on one of the league’s most potent offenses. It stands to reason that Ekeler will be and should be the top waiver wire option in almost all fantasy leagues headed into Week 13, and the lucky owner who gets him will be getting a treat.
From a purely scheme-based perspective the Chargers love throwing to their running backs, and Ekeler has been their primary back in the receiving game for the majority of the season. When you add the ground game (12-15 carries) to Ekeler’s workload you get a result that could very well be in the James Conner category of production. Just look for a second at what Ekeler was able to do with/without Gordon against Arizona on Sunday: (15 Touches/103 Yds/TD). Ten of those 15 touches were receptions, and Ekeler caught 10/11 of the targets thrown his way, showing a proven ability as a pass catcher and a very real trust from Philip Rivers. On the ground in minimal work Ekeler averaged 5 YPC on just 5 attempts which is well above average.
The room for accelerated growth is there for Ekeler in the absence of Gordon, and in this offense, I believe he has the potential to be a high level RB2 for the playoff push in all fantasy formats.
BAKER MAYFIELD (Cleveland Browns)
28-7. That was the score going into halftime of the Bengals/Browns game this past Sunday, and for the first time in what feels like forever the Browns were the team on top. Cleveland would go on to continue that dominance on both sides of the ball and win the Battle of Ohio 35-20, and the biggest reason for that is Baker Mayfield.
The mercurial No. 1 overall pick of this past year’s draft had been steadily progressing all year, and finally had his breakout performance in Week 12. With a stat line of (258 Pass Yds/4 TDs) Mayfield showed a complete and total command of the Browns offense throughout the course of the game and put in the finest showing of his young career.
The Browns dominated on the ground with Nick Chubb, and they took to the air to each of their weapons (Landry/Njoku/Calloway) seemingly at will. The post Hue Jackson times have been good to this Browns team (as Mayfield will happily tell you), and this performance on Sunday was the biggest bright spot yet. In a draft filled with high profile, first round QB’s, the first overall pick has separated himself as the best of the pack in the early going. He’s given the city of Cleveland a vibrant leader to rally around for their football team, and he’s given fantasy owners a very real reason to pay attention to the Browns in the coming years. Keep your head up Cleveland, you picked a winner.
PHILIP LINDSAY (Denver Broncos)
The announce team for Sunday’s Steelers/Broncos game said it best. How did the Broncos (and 31 other teams) miss on Philip Lindsay in the 2018 draft? The Broncos have the most reason to be embarrassed considering how great Lindsay was at the University of Colorado. He was right under their noses and they still didn’t select him in the draft.
Lindsay, a lifelong Broncos fan has since made them look even more foolish by grossly outperforming the guy they did pick, Royce Freeman. The good news for Broncos fans is that Lindsay decided to help his favorite team rather than hold their negligence against them. Since Week 1 Lindsay has been the best back on this Broncos team, he touched the ball 18 times and went for over 100 yards and a touchdown in that contest and hasn’t looked back since. On the year the undrafted free agent has scored 7 combined touchdowns on the ground and through the air, and he’s averaged a steady workload of 14-16 carries per game (out-snapping Freeman by a wide margin).
For fantasy purposes Lindsay has been just as surprising a revelation, producing double digit fantasy performances in 7 of 12 weeks and giving owners a stable floor in PPR formats with his role in the passing game. As a whole Philip Lindsay has been one of the most surprising rookies of the 2018 season for more reasons than one, and if it were not for the efforts of Saquon Barkley he’d be a near lock to be the offensive ROTY. He’s a truly great, “hometown boy done good” type of story in a league that doesn’t often produce those kinds of narratives.
ROB GRONKOWSKI (New England Patriots)
I’ve gone on record multiple times throughout the 2018 NFL season and said that the era of Rob Gronkowski being the top tight end in the game may be coming to an end. I still stand by that statement due to his increased amount of time missed per year due to wear and tear and injuries, but when he shows up and flashes his ability he’s still one of the most awe-inspiring players in the game.
Gronk told the media that he was healthy and felt ready to play against the Jets in Week 12, and he wasn’t lying. The monstrous, Hall of Fame bound tight end grappled with the Jets secondary all day and came away with a line of (3 Rec/56 Yds/TD). The touchdown was just Gronkowski’s 2nd trip to the end zone this year, but his ability to muscle through coverage and score showed a considerable uptick in confidence since the last time he took the field.
While the big man’s health should be monitored, it’s telling that he was able to score in this big divisional match-up. It should also be noted that Gronk narrowly missed scoring a 2nd touchdown late in the game on an overthrown ball by Tom Brady, and his 7 targets showed that he’s still one of No, 12’s favorite options in the red zone regardless of his health. Keep Gronk’s status in mind, but don’t hesitate to roll him out if he’s good to go. Big No. 87 can still be a difference maker for both the Patriots and your fantasy team.
MY TAKEAWAY FROM WEEK 11:
Andrew Luck isn’t just back, he’s better than he’s ever been before.
Since his introduction to the league in 2012 you’d be hard pressed to find a quarterback more dynamic than Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. He was in many ways the prototype for the modern quarterback we talk about/see on the regular in the NFL today, and he was only drafted a few years before the Wentz/Goff/Mayfield/Mahomes of the world.
Luck’s combination of elusiveness in the pocket, arm strength and football IQ represented the blueprint for the perfect NFL quarterback. In his first 3 years in the league Luck threw for 86 touchdowns, culminating in a career best 40 TDs in 2014. He was the Colts meal ticket and was well on his way to being anointed as one of the best QBs in the league before a rash of injuries struck him down. Multiple seasons of bad line play and too many hits had made Luck a sitting duck in the pocket and opened the promising player up to a level of battery the likes of which a franchise QB generally never sees.
The next few years were trying, not just for Luck but for fans of football in general. To see this great player sidelined due to shoulder issues and other ailments felt like a major loss for the sport as whole. His star had shined so bright in such a small frame of time that fans (myself included) wanted to see him get back to health so he could light up our screens again with his ability. After nearly 3 years of push and pull, retirement rumors and repeated injury scares Andrew Luck finally returned to the league to start the 2018 season. It was only fitting that he would return to find the perfect head coach waiting for him; Frank Reich.
I wrote about Reich’s contributions to both the 2017 Eagles and 2018 Colts at length in my write up last week, but to really drive home how great this Colts team has been it’s important to look at how great Andrew Luck has performed. Listed below are Luck’s touchdown totals from each of his 5 seasons in the league (he missed all of 2017 due to injury):
2015: 15 (shortened year)
This year, through just 12 weeks of action Andrew Luck has thrown 32 touchdowns in Frank Reich’s offense. That number already makes his return campaign not just a success, but the 2nd best offensive season in Luck’s entire career. Those 32 touchdowns put him well on pace to top his 40 TD season from 2014, and he’s doing this in his first year with Frank Reich as his head coach.
To put it simply, Luck’s star has even more room to grow than we first anticipated. In Chuck Pagano’s offense Luck was still excellent, but he needed more of his physical gifts to make plays and (more importantly) avoid pressure from a bad offensive line. In 12 games under Reich and the new coaching staff Luck has seen his sack totals drop drastically from (41) in 2016 to just (11) so far in 2018.
The improved line play has given Luck the time to regain his footing and pick up where he left off in 2016, and he’s rebounded to once again be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and in fantasy football. On the year, Luck has thrown for less than 2 touchdowns just once (Week 3 @ Philadelphia). Every other week he’s thrown for at least 2 scores to an offense that (w/o T.Y. Hilton) is largely made up of castoffs from other teams and practice squad level talents.
Andrew Luck is on pace to have the best statistical season of his career with names like Chester Rogers/Eric Ebron/Jack Doyle/Ryan Grant making up his receiving core. I’m going to go out on a limb and say none of those guys were even picked in fantasy drafts this season (maybe Doyle in the late rounds), and yet Luck continues to produce regardless.
With a new lease on his NFL life, better line play that protects him and the perfect head coach installed at the helm we’re seeing quite possibly the best version of Andrew Luck ever. He’s currently on an 8-game streak of throwing 3 or more touchdowns, and it really doesn’t seem to matter who he’s playing against. This offense is healthy and humming along for the first time in years, and we’re being treated to one of the best in the league returning to glory. It’s a good time to be a football fan.