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Fantasy Football Weekly: Bucs-Falcons

Posted Dec 15, 2017

Most leagues are about to contest their playoff semifinals this weekend, so the fantasy implications of Bucs-vs.-Falcons are even more important this week

If you are reading this week's Fantasy column for actual advice and not just to see how spectacularly I can burn myself with these predictions, then congratulations! That means you're still alive in your playoffs and, as long as your league is set up the right way, you're in the semifinals. That means every decision from here on out is critical. There's no room for error.

In terms of the real NFL playoffs, the Buccaneers gave themselves little wiggle room by dropping close ones to Atlanta and Green Bay and falling to 4-8. A rousing but ultimately unsuccessful comeback against Detroit last week officially snuffed the flame of Tampa Bay playoff hopes. However, the Buccaneers remain quite relevant in fantasy terms, not only because they employ Mike Evans and a couple other potential game-changers, but because of the remaining schedule. How Tampa Bay's real-life defense fares against the likes of Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and – if for some terrible reason your league is still running in Week 17 – Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara.

Thus, I'm feeling a lot of pressure to get the advice right this week, or at least not to write anything that will steer you off a cliff. On the other hand, it is only fantasy football. Why worry? Let's have fun with it in our latest Three Burning Questions, which you'll find a little farther down the page. First, however, we continue with tradition and review the advice from last week.

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Accountability Section: This season, each Fantasy Football Weekly article is going to include a review of the previous week's advice to see if it was actually helpful. Here's a recap of what I covered last week, along with self-assigned letter grades for each piece of advice:

Advice #1: If you have other options, don't rush to start Peyton Barber after his big day in Green Bay because Doug Martin's return makes the workload split too difficult to predict.

Review: B+. That advice was spot-on but, as I've noted a couple other times this year, it's hard to give myself a full "A" because the level of difficulty on that prediction wasn't very high. Barber had 63 combined rushing and receiving yards and no touchdowns. Overall, he performed better than Martin but Martin got the touchdown to go with his 50 yards from scrimmage, so he would have been a better play.

Advice #2: Out of all the possible lower-level tight end plays you could make in the Bucs-Lions game, the best pick is Cameron Brate.

Review: F. One of my few complete "F" grades this year, but man was that wrong. The Bucs' O.J. Howard was the best play with a 54 yards and a touchdown, and Detroit's Eric Ebron did quite well with 94 yards. In fact, if it was a PPR league, Ebron's 10-94 line would be better than Howard's 4-54-1. They both lost a fumble, though, so that might have factored into your scoring. Brate caught one pass for 11 yards.

Advice #3: Assuming he's cleared to play, stick with Detroit's Matthew Stafford if he had been your fantasy quarterback, because even with the hand injury he'll be productive.

Review: B-. Stafford did throw for 381 yards, but he had only one touchdown and threw two picks. That probably didn't kill you, but there's a chance your other QB option did better.

I came into the fantasy playoff season with a full head of steam from several good weeks' worth of predictions. Week 14 was a stumble, however. If you're still alive in your league's playoffs, let's see if I can offer some more useful advice this week.

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Three Burning Questions: Falcons at Buccaneers

1. Mike Evans has just four catches for 58 yards over the last two weeks combined. I've made it to my league's semis anyway, but is it safe to leave him in the lineup this week?

First of all, if you have Mike Evans on your team he almost certainly was your first-round pick. What would be worse, starting your first pick in the semifinal game and getting poor production, or benching him for your semifinal game and watching him go off?

Like I said last week, I'm a dance-with-who-brung-ya guy in the fantasy playoffs. That means you know which way I'm automatically leaning on this one.

However, it's more than just that. I think this could be a big game for Evans. Yes, his last two outings produced lines of 2-33-0 and 2-25-0, but do you know how many times in his four-year career he's ever gone three straight games with fewer than three catches in each? Zero. That's how many times. In fact, this is the first time he's ever played even two straight games with fewer than three catches. Only once has he ever gone three straight games with fewer than 50 receiving yards, and that was as a rookie and he just missed getting 50 in all three of those contests.

Basically, I'm saying that Evans is due. He averaged 90 yards and 5.5 receptions in the two games before this recent (statistical) downturn, but what I find amazing is that he doesn't have a single 100-yard game this year. It's not like the Bucs haven't been putting up good passing numbers overall; Tampa Bay is fifth in the league in net passing yards per game. Sure, the addition of such viable weapons as DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin means the ball is getting spread around a little more – which is a good thing for the Buccaneers – but Evans is still the number-one weapon on offense. He's going to get his eventually. I say it's this week. Note that when the Buccaneers got their first first-and-goal situation in the last game, against Detroit, the very first call was a quick sort-of-fade pass to Evans. It didn't work, but the Bucs still favor him (and Cam Brate) in the red zone.

Atlanta's pass defense? Pretty good. The Falcons have allowed the 10th fewest passing yards per game this season. That happens to be their exact ranking against wide receivers in fantasy football terms, too. However, according to Football Outsiders, they are 20th in the NFL in defending opposing number-one receivers. That's Evans.

Jameis Winston is in his third game back from his shoulder injury. He's thrown for 270 and 285 yards in his first two and notched a pair of touchdown passes in each. I don't think he's going to throw a lot more to offensive lineman Leonard Wester, who caught one of those TDs last week. He's going to throw to Evans, and this time it's going to work. Play your number-one draft pick with confidence in the semifinals.

2. I picked up Peyton Barber after his 100-yard game in Green Bay but, as you suggested, did not start him last week. Now that he's looked good two games in a row, is Barber a consideration for my flex position?

Yes, I would say he's a consideration this week. I preached caution last week and I'm still a little lukewarm this week, but if you're choosing between uncertain options like Barber, Orleans Darkwa, Alex Collins or James White (I can never figure out which New England back to start), he's a promising option.

Barber got almost all the work when Doug Martin was out for the Green Bay game with a concussion, so I don't think you have to worry about Jacquizz Rodgers or Charles Sims leeching his opportunities. Obviously, Martin's presence is the sticking point. He's still the team's starter and in the last game he got most of the work in the first half when he returned against Detroit.

In fact, we later learned that this was the team's plan going into that game: Martin gets the first half and Barber gets the second half. Barber ended up doing better (in real life terms; Martin's touchdown evened it out in fantasy terms), as the coaching staff credited him with eight effective runs and one explosive run among his 12 carries. Martin was credited with four effective runs in 10 tries, and of course he also lost a fumble. That hurts in real life and in some fantasy leagues.

I'll say this: I think Dirk Koetter and the Bucs' coaching staff still believes in Martin's talents, and I wouldn't worry about Martin being "punished" for losing a fumble. That said, with Barber looking good for a second straight week, I would be surprised if his share of the offense doesn't increase this week. I doubt it will be a straight split down the middle again. If Barber looks good early, I think the Bucs will stick with the hot hand.

I wouldn't start Barber over a more established running back on your roster, because I think he will have to score a touchdown to end up with a good fantasy day. But I would give him a try over options like the ones I listed above.

3. Help! Leonard Fournette is one of my starting RBs and not only has he been dealing with an ankle injury but now he's not practicing (at least at the start of the week) due to a quad problem. I need to have a Plan B if he's not available to play this weekend. I can move a RB I've got in the FLEX position up, but then I need somebody to play FLEX and I don't like my bench options. Is there a sneaky play in the Bucs-Falcons game I could use as a potential fallback?

For your sake, I hope Fournette is good to go by Sunday, because it's pretty hard to find any comparable option on the waiver wire this late in the season. If you're desperate, however, I'd check to say if Mohamed Sanu is out there. He's still available in 24% of Yahoo! leagues and 26% of ESPN leagues, so it's possible. Tampa Bay has allowed the most fantasy points to wide receivers this season, and according to that same Football Outsiders chart referenced above, the Bucs rank 19th in defending opposing number-two receivers.

Of course, Sanu is not available in three quarters of leagues, and perhaps yours is too savvy to make that a possibility. If we want to dig a little deeper and roll the dice, you might try the Falcons' third receiver, Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel hasn't had nearly the impact he had a year ago in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but he did have a couple of nice games in November. He's still getting a decent amount of playing time but not many targets. However, the Buccaneers are 28th in the NFL in defending "other" wide receivers, according to Football Outsiders, and you got to believe they're going to be paying extra attention to Julio Jones after what Jones did to them three weeks ago. Perhaps that will create some opportunities for Gabriel. Like I said, it's a role of the dice, and hopefully you won't be forced into a tough Sunday call anyway.