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Fantasy Football Weekly: Bucs-Panthers

Posted Dec 22, 2017

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

And now we've arrived at our final Buccaneer-specific fantasy football discussion of the season. Sure, there are actually two weeks of NFL games left, but if your fantasy league is still competing in Week 17, you're doing it wrong. As such, I won't be providing in Week 17 advice. I'm here for you now, as you prepare for what should be your championship game. If that's why you're here, then congratulations.

I know I've mentioned my disdain for Week 17 fantasy football play before. I don't mean to beat a dead horse by bringing it up here again, but that particular topic came up at the office lunch table a few days ago. I was in the majority in my opinion, but it wasn't unanimous. A co-worker – who I'll grudgingly admit is an intelligent fella – was advancing the theory that Week 17 in the NFL has become a lot more meaningful since the NFL started making sure every team was playing a division opponent that week. It is certainly ratcheting up the excitement in the NFC South, with three teams vying for the title and all four playing a sort-of December round robin.

The problem with Week 17 fantasy, of course, is that you run into the possibility of very important fantasy football players being rested if his real team has nothing to play for. I'm sure many Peyton Manning owners felt that pain back in the days of the dominant Colts. It's not very common for teams to be resting their starters in Week 16.

And I'm sorry, but while my co-worker makes a decent point I have to stand by my feelings on the matter. Sure Cam Newton, Julio Jones and Alvin Kamara are going to be fighting it out to the end, but what about the eagles, Patriots, Steelers, all of whom have locked up their divisions already? If the first-round byes are already determined before Week 17, you might see some guys rested. You want to play without your stud tight end Rob Gronkowski or – even worse – your star back, Le'Veon Bell. To me, the fact that some teams are still playing for something and others aren't is the real problem. If you had Bell and your opponent had Kamara, you could end up with a real disadvantage.

Okay, I'll climb down off my soapbox and, for the last time this year, contemplate the week's Three Burning Questions. You'll find a little farther down the page; first, we continue with tradition and review the advice from last week.

**

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: Mike Evans is going to have a big game against Atlanta so don't even think about benching him for your semifinals, even after his two very low-scoring games, and even if you have a reasonable alternative.

Review: B+. This one is just two offensive pass-interference calls from being an A. I thought Jameis Winston would make a point of getting the ball to Evans and he did, targeting him 10 times if you include the two catches erased by penalty. Those two catches would have added 87 yards and a touchdown to Mike's total, but even without that his 5-79-1 line was probably good enough for your team to justify leaving him in there.

Advice #2: I wouldn't start Peyton Barber in your FLEX spot over a more established option, but if you're deciding between similar players like him, Orleans Darkwa, Alex Collins and James White, I would.

Review: C. Barber looked quite good running the ball for a third straight week, but from a fantasy perspective he didn't produce much, with 68 yards from scrimmage and no touchdowns. Darkwa and Collins were a little bit better. None were anything special.

Advice #3: If you needed a really sneaky flex play due to recent injuries, try Mohamed Sanu if you're 25% of leagues in which he's available. If not, try Taylor Gabriel and cross your fingers.

Review: D. You can quibble and call that an "F" if you want, but just as I tend to water down my good grades if the prediction has a low degree of difficulty, I think I can just the slightest edge of a pass here because this was a really tough one. That said, Sanu had two catches for 23 yards and Gabriel had two for 16. My thought was that extra attention on Julio Jones in order to avoid a repeat of what Jones did three weeks ago would create more opportunities for the Falcons' other wideouts. The Buccaneers did indeed roll their coverage in Jones' direction, holding him to three catches for 54 yards, but the beneficiary of that was the Falcons' running game (201 yards).

So if you took all my advice last week (which would be a wildly specific coincidence), it probably didn't help much. But if you're reading this you managed to win anyway, so let's try this one more time!

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Three Burning Questions: Buccaneers at Panthers

1. Carson Wentz is the main reason I made the playoffs in my league, so now I'm scrambling. I picked up Jameis Winston when someone dropped him during his injury time off, but I haven't started him. I wasn't quick enough to pick up Nick Foles, the obvious replacement, so I'm deciding between Winston and Marcus Mariota (or for the purposes of this made-up question, Case Keenum, Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton or Blake Bortles). I wish I would have started Winston on Monday night. Should I roll with him in my championship game?

Admittedly, not many teams will have made it to their leagues' championship games if they have a question mark at quarterback. But the Wentz injury does make it possible. True story: I just lost in the semifinals (as the #1 seed!) to a team that had made it there with Wentz. He was quick enough to get Foles, but that doesn't mean every Wentz-owning team was.

So it's totally possible that there are teams in this situation, and some of them have to be considering Winston given his pretty darn good work in three games since his return from a shoulder injury. He's available in 46% of Yahoo! leagues and 43.7% of ESPN leagues, so this is a very real consideration we're discussing here.

Since he returned, Winston has averaged 285 passing yards per game and thrown seven touchdown passes against two interceptions. Here are some quarterbacks that have had a worse per-game fantasy average over the last month: Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Philip Rivers, Jared Goff, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford (!), Drew Brees (!!) and Tom Brady (!!!). Over the last three weeks, Winston is tied for first in the NFL in touchdown passes and seventh in passing yards.

Have I done enough to convince you that Winston is a very viable option for your championship-hunting team? I have? Good. Now I'm going to tell you to be careful.

This has nothing to do with the way that Winston is playing right now. Not only was his last game the second-best of his career in terms of passer rating, but Head Coach Dirk Koetter said that the third-year passer was firing off one accurate dart after another "effortlessly." That choice of adverb makes me think that Winston's throwing shoulder is feeling as good as it has since he was first hurt against Arizona in Week Six. In the Buccaneers' three games prior to that Arizona game, he had averaged 332 yards and two touchdowns per game.

The problem isn't with Winston but with some pretty significant red flags surrounding him. First, we have the Panthers' defense, which held Winston to his worst outing of the season (not counting the ones in which he left due to injury), albeit a couple weeks after that injury in Arizona. Winston threw for just 210 yards in that game, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He's healthier now, but the Panthers have allowed the 12th-fewest fantasy points per game to quarterbacks this year. Rivers, Keenum, Flacco, Smith, Garoppolo, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor all have more favorable matchups in Week 16.

There is also the matter of the Bucs' insane run of injuries on Monday night. Rookie tight end O.J. Howard, who is tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions (five thrown by Winston), is done for the year. So is right guard J.R. Sweezy, which will cause another shuffling up front, with three of the team's five original starters now on injured reserve. DeSean Jackson is a question mark due to an ankle injury. Cam Brate is working his way through hip and knee ailments. As amazingly well as the Buccaneers handled all those injuries on Monday night, it's fair to wonder if a depleted cast around him is going to make it harder for Winston to put up fantasy points. By the way, that's a concern for all you Mike Evans owners, too, since I expect the Panthers to try to take him away. If you're in the championship game and you have Evans, you're almost certainly starting him, but you'll do it with your fingers crossed.

Getting back to Winston, one more red flag: The weather in Charlotte. It's going to be relatively cold. That's not a huge problem unless it is also wet. There's a bigger chance of rain in Charlotte on Saturday than Sunday, apparently, but there is a legitimate possibility that the Bucs and Panthers will be playing with a wet ball. I don't normally pay much attention to the forecast when making fantasy football decisions, but with your championship on the line and a tough decision to make, it makes sense to consider all the potential impacting factors.

So if I'm you I'm a bit nervous about this possible Winston start. If I have a guy who has had some good games this year, if not necessarily lately, like Alex Smith, I'm going with him. If I'm choosing between Winston and, say, Keenum, Bortles or Taylor, all with better matchups, I'm going in that direction.

2. Does the injury to O.J. Howard mean I can start using Cam Brate again? I haven't gotten much production out of that position in the second half of the season.

I'm now going to do the opposite of what I did for the above question and start with all the reasons not to start Brate before telling you to go ahead and do it anyway.

First, there's the injuries. Brate was limited in practice this week as he tries to get through hip and knee ailments. He's been playing through some nagging things for a while now, so I don't think he's in real danger of missing the game, but it's still something to factor in when guessing how productive he will be.

Second, from a playtime standpoint, I don't think the injury to Howard is going to significantly increase Brate's snaps. The player who is more analogous to Howard in terms of size and skill set, and who should see much more time, is rookie Antony Auclair. That's what happened on Monday when Howard went out near the end of the first quarter. Brate's percentage of snaps stayed almost exactly where it has been all season while Auclair's share essentially doubled.

Third, Carolina's defense is good against tight ends, probably because of all their fast and rangy linebackers. In terms of fantasy football points, the Panthers have allowed the sixth-fewest in the league to tight ends this year (the Bucs, by the way, are two spots better on that list). That list I like to refer to on Football Outsiders, which breaks down how a defense does against different categories of pass-catchers, agrees. FO has Carolina as the league's fourth-best defense against tight ends.

So there you go, the reasons for caution. Now, start Cam Brate anyway. As the question states, you haven't had much production at tight end after Brate's big first half of the season gave way to a quiet second half (fantasy football-wise). That would indicate that you don't have a championship-caliber option like Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. I would not advise you to start Brate over someone like that.

However, keep in mind that one of those great Panthers linebackers, Thomas Davis, will miss Sunday's game due to a suspension. Another one, Shaq Thompson has missed the last two games with a foot injury and could miss another one, or at least be less than 100 percent on Sunday. There would obviously be some drop-off in talent to the Panthers' backups, and they are also less experienced so would be more likely to make a coverage mistake.

Brate's bumps and bruises are a concern, but he actually came back from an early-game injury on Monday night and was quite effective in the second half. He's clearly a tough guy. I expect him to play at a high level on Sunday.

While Brate's playing time might not increase by a huge amount, it will probably go up by some amount. The Bucs may not want Brate to fill in for Howard in some of the things that Howard does on the line – with Auclair the better option – but they might be more inclined to use personnel packages that include Brate instead of a Howard-type tight end. Brate was producing good fantasy numbers in the season's first half while getting the same sort of playing time he is now. It shouldn't get any worse.

Finally, I'm playing a little hunch here that the Panthers are going to put their defensive focus on stopping Mike Evans, opening up better opportunities for everyone else. That's particularly true in the red zone. And who does Jameis Winston love in the red zone almost as much as Mike Evans? Cam Brate, that's who. Five catches, 65 yards and a touchdown – that's my call.

3. The last time the Bucs and Panthers played, it was a low-scoring game, both in real life and especially in fantasy. Cam's only touchdown went to Kelvin Benjamin, who isn't even a Panther anymore, and nobody rushed for more than 44 yards. Christian McCaffrey had about five (non-PPR) or 10 (PPR) fantasy points. I'd never bench Cam or Greg Olsen, but should I be concerned about Stewart or McCaffrey?

While I hope the Panthers have another bad fantasy day in the rematch, if I'm thinking only in terms of fantasy football and not what I want the Buccaneers to accomplish, I don't think I'd be worried. I think the Panthers are gradually figuring out the best ways to use all of their weapons and their offense is just getting better and better.

From Weeks 1-9 this season, the Panthers scored 18.7 points per game, ranking 24th in the NFL in that category. From Week 10 on, Carolina has scored 32.6 points per game, best in the league. Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter believes a lot of that has had to do with the Panthers turning Cam Newton loose and letting him run more out of designed and non-designed plays. As we said, you were already going to start Newton. But that increase in offensive proficiency helps everyone around Newton – a rising tide lifts all boats, so to speak. McCaffrey has five of his seven touchdowns in the last six games and he's getting an increasing number of carries to go with his team-leading 73 receptions. Stewart has scored five times in Carolina's last four games and his two 100-yard outings have come in the last five weeks.

In addition, there are some definite differences between the Buccaneers' defense that held Newton and company to 254 yards in Week Eight and the one that will take the field in Week 16. Safety Justin Evans is on injured reserve, as is cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. We don't yet know if the team's two best defenders, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, will be back in action after missing last week's game, or how effective they'll be if they do play. Tampa Bay has given up 148 or more rushing yards in three of its last four games.

So I'm still starting McCaffrey, especially in PPR leagues, and if I have Stewart and a comparable option for, say, the FLEX position, I think I would feel pretty good about starting him as well. I very much hope I get this piece of advice wrong.