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Start ‘Em or Sit ‘Em

Antonio Brown is a Must-Start with Godwin and Evans Injured

by Nick Mensio
Updated On: December 24, 2021, 1:10 am ET

With COVID and injuries decimating rosters, it’s time to scale back the start/sit column. We’re going with four starts at each position and skipping the sits section the rest of the way.

QUARTERBACK

 

Start of the Week: Dak Prescott vs. Washington – Since returning from his calf injury in Week 9, Prescott is fantasy’s overall QB19. He was the QB9 across Weeks 1-6 prior to straining the calf. Prescott is quite obviously playing hurt. He has a 9:6 TD:INT mark across his last seven starts and three straight one-touchdown passing performances. Prescott has not been playing well by any means, and he’s failed in multiple plum spots over the past month-plus, but the date with Washington is too good to ignore. Washington just played on Tuesday night, so this defense is on an extremely short week and just got diced up by Jalen Hurts for 296 passing yards and three total touchdowns in Week 15. Washington is 27th in pass-defense DVOA, 26th in completion rate allowed, 27th in opponent yards per attempt, 30th in passing yards allowed, 32nd in passing touchdowns surrendered, 30th in opponent passer rating, and 32nd in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks. Over the last three weeks, the Football Team is 23rd in opponent plays per game and 25th in opponent time of possession. Dallas should possess the ball plenty Sunday night, and the Cowboys’ implied total of 28.5 points is Week 16’s highest.

 

Starts

 

Matt Ryan vs. Lions – Ryan is not having a good 36-year-old campaign, checking in as fantasy’s QB29 through 15 weeks. He’s failed to have a multi-touchdown passing game in six straight tries and sports a 3:5 TD:INT mark in that span. Ryan’s 3.8% touchdown rate is his lowest in the last six seasons. He’s just not surrounded by very good talent, and Ryan is obviously on his last legs. But the matchup with Detroit is arguably his best on the 2021 schedule. The Lions are 12th in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks but clock in at 26th in pass-defense DVOA, 31st in opponent yards per attempt, 25th in passing yards allowed, and 25th in opponent passer rating. The Lions shut down the Arizona offense last week, but we’re going to look at the season-long picture here and side with an Atlanta offense in a home dome spot after Detroit won its “Super Bowl” last Sunday. Detroit is 23rd in opponent plays per game and 28th in the same category over the last three weeks. Atlanta is implied to score a rock-solid 24.5 points as six-point home favorites. Ryan has no rushing upside to speak of, but his plus-plus passing draw elevates him to mid-range QB2 status this week.

Russell Wilson vs. Bears – Wilson is coming off his third touchdown-less game of the season Tuesday night against the Rams, but prior to that he’d thrown multiple touchdowns in three straight contests. One would think Tyler Lockett will also be back from the COVID list this week after missing Week 15. Wilson and Lockett have an undeniable connection. The Bears are fresh off shutting down Kirk Cousins last Monday night, holding him to 87 yards on 24 attempts, and Chicago did it with its entire starting secondary out with COVID. On the year, though, the Bears are 25th in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, 22nd in pass-defense DVOA, 25th in opponent yards per attempt, 29th in passing touchdowns allowed, 31st in interceptions, and 31st in opponent passer rating. This also could be an “interview” of sorts for Wilson, as the Bears are reportedly on Wilson’s list of teams he’d accept a trade to and were said to be pursuing him very aggressively last offseason. One would think he could have some extra motivation to play well, even if this Bears regime is unlikely to be in place this time next month. Chicago is one of four teams in the bottom-12 both in DVOA against the pass and run. Seattle’s implied team total of 24.75 points is the ninth-highest of Week 16 as 6.5-point favorites.

Kirk Cousins vs. Rams – Cousins is coming off an absolutely dreadful Week 15 performance against the Bears’ fifth-string secondary (joking, maybe), as the entire starting five-man secondary was out and on the COVID list. Cousins turned 24 pass attempts into a measly 87 yards, but he did throw two touchdowns, tossing multiple scores for the seventh straight game and 11th time this year. Cousins’ 1.2% interception rate is easily the lowest of his career. He’s playing good football this season and taking care of the ball. This is an important game for the Vikings in the NFC playoff picture. And with Dalvin Cook (COVID) now out, Cousins could be asked to do a little more against the Rams. Los Angeles is fifth in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, but the Rams are 27th in opponent plays per game, and this game’s 49-point total is the highest of the week. Los Angeles will be on a short week after playing Tuesday night. It’s a potential letdown spot for the Rams’ defense. Cousins is the overall QB10 on the season.

 

RUNNING BACK

 

Start of the Week: Alexander Mattison vs. Rams – Dalvin Cook was placed on the COVID list Thursday and will not play Sunday against L.A., giving Mattison his fourth start of the season. In his previous three starts this year, Mattison has produced rushing lines of 26-112, 25-113, and 22-90-1 with a combined 16-133-1 receiving line. Mattison has averaged 29.67 touches per game in Cook’s three absences and played 86% of the snaps last time in Week 13 against Detroit. Mattison should dominate the backfield work and touches against Los Angeles and will be a shoo-in touch-based RB1 in a game with a 49-point total, the highest of Week 16. The Rams are 17th in fantasy points allowed to running backs but have allowed the fifth-most rushing touchdowns. Los Angeles is 27th in opponent plays per game. This should be one of the higher-paced games of the week played in a fantasy-friendly dome environment.

 

Starts

 

Ronald Jones at Panthers – Jones is in a similar position as Alexander Mattison above, stepping into a glorious position atop the depth chart and filling in for an injured/sick RB1. Leonard Fournette is done for the regular season after injuring his hamstring last Sunday night against the Saints. Jones probably won’t be an 85% snaps player that Fournette was, but Jones is fully expected to handle virtually all rushing and goal-line work out of the Tampa Bay backfield. Jones should easily see 15-plus carries with upside for 20 or more against a run-funnel Panthers defense. The Panthers have surrendered the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs but check in at 24th in run-defense DVOA. Jones gets two matchups with the Panthers over the final three weeks of the season. With the Bucs down Chris Godwin (knee) and likely Mike Evans (hamstring), Tampa Bay could lean a little more on its run game. Jones is an immediate plug-and-play RB2 with top-12 upside in an up-pace Bucs offense.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Steelers – Edwards-Helaire was held to just 50 scoreless yards on 11 touches last week against the Chargers, but his 71% snap share was his highest of the season, supporting him as a going-forward RB2 with upside the rest of the way. With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce currently on the COVID list as of writing this Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance Edwards-Helaire could be leaned on more in a home date with a Steelers defense that is 30th in DVOA against the run, 26th in fantasy points allowed to running backs, 31st in rushing yards surrendered, 32nd in opponent yards per carry, and 26th in rushing touchdowns allowed. Kansas City’s implied team total of 25.75 points is the sixth-highest of the week.

Justin Jackson at Texans – Austin Ekeler was officially placed on the COVID list Wednesday, leaving his status for Week 16 totally up in the air. Nobody knows if he’s going to be cleared in time to face the Texans. Assuming he’s not, Jackson immediately becomes a matchup-based RB2 with upside facing a Texans defense that is 27th in run-defense DVOA, 28th in fantasy points allowed to running backs, 32nd in rushing yards allowed, 29th in opponent yards per carry, and 31st in rushing touchdowns allowed. James Robinson (18-75-1), Rashaad Penny (16-137-2), Jonathan Taylor (32-143-2), and the Jets’ trio of Tevin Coleman/Ty Johnson/Austin Walter (31-147-1) have all shredded this Houston defense over the last four weeks. After leading the Chargers backfield with a 54% playing time clip and 13-86 rushing line last week, Jackson is the overwhelming favorite to handle lead-back duties should Ekeler sit.

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WIDE RECEIVER

 

Start of the Week: Antonio Brown at Panthers – Brown hasn’t played since Week 6 due to an ankle injury and then three-game suspension for falsifying a vaccination card. Brown is said to be vaccinated, however, and will now make his return to the lineup when the Bucs desperately need him. Chris Godwin suffered a season-ending torn ACL last week, and Mike Evans is sidelined with a strained hamstring. Brown is the Bucs’ new No. 1 wideout and already has that rapport with Tom Brady, who has caped up for AB on multiple occasions. Brady is likely to force-feed Brown, who remains one of the best route-runners. Brown averaged 10.7 targets per game in his last three games played before getting hurt. He should have a floor of 10 looks in this one. The Bucs are implied to score 27 points, the third-highest of Week 16.

 

Starts

 

Amon-Ra St. Brown at Falcons – Over the last three weeks, St. Brown has registered target counts of 12, 12, and 11 with receiving lines of 10-86-1, 8-73, and 8-90-1, checking in as fantasy’s overall WR11 in that span. With T.J. Hockenson done for the year, St. Brown is locked in as the Lions’ clear-cut target hog. He now draws a Falcons defense that is 27th in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers and 30th in pass-defense DVOA while checking in at 21st in opponent plays per game. This is one of the best spots for the Detroit offense. But Jared Goff is currently on the COVID list, so that is a big thing to watch ahead of Sunday’s game. If Goff isn’t cleared, St. Brown should be downgraded pretty significantly if Tim Boyle or David Blough are going to be under center. If Goff starts, St. Brown should be fired up as a volume-driven WR2 out of the slot. This game’s 43-point total has a chance to hit the “over” in a matchup between two bad defenses.

Russell Gage vs. Lions – Since his zero-ball Week 10 against the Cowboys, Gage is fantasy’s overall WR10 seeing an average of nine targets per game. He has two touchdowns in that span and has clearly become Matt Ryan’s most-trusted target with Calvin Ridley taking a lost season to deal with his mental-health issues. The Lions are a middling 15th in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers, but they’re 26th in pass-defense DVOA. Gage is seeing heavy target volume and will face an undermanned Detroit secondary under the dome in a friendly environment.

Odell Beckham at Vikings – OBJ is coming off his worst game since joining the Rams, catching just one pass for seven yards on three targets against the Seahawks Tuesday night. Beckham’s snaps were right in line with his Rams averages, however, as he played 76% of the downs and ran the third-most routes among Los Angeles’ wideouts. This shapes up as a good bounce-back spot for OBJ, facing a Minnesota defense that is dead last in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers. This game’s 49-point total is the highest of Week 16.

 

TIGHT END

 

Start of the Week: Zach Ertz vs. Browns – In four games with DeAndre Hopkins sidelined, Ertz has put together receiving lines of 3-27, 4-46, 8-88-2, and 6-74 on 7.75 targets per game. Ertz played a season-high 89% of the snaps last week against the Lions and has already become one of Kyler Murray’s top red-zone options in the scoring area. The Browns have allowed the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends. Arizona’s implied team total of 25 points is the eighth-highest of Week 16. Ertz should be treated as a rock-solid TE1.

 

Starts

 

Kyle Pitts vs. Lions – Pitts has just one touchdown this season but is coming off his most receiving yards (77) since Week 7 and looks to be escaping his funk with 5-61 and 4-77 receiving lines over the last two weeks. Pitts and Russell Gage are Matt Ryan’s top-two targets with Cordarrelle Patterson mixing in as the third option in the pass game while leading the backfield in rushing. Pitts now catches a Lions defense that has allowed the ninth-most receiving yards to tight ends. If Jared Goff (COVID) is cleared to play, I like this game to hit the “over” on its 43-point total in a matchup between two bad teams featuring bad defenses.

James O’Shaughnessy at Jets – Since returning from I.R. four weeks ago, O’Shaughnessy is averaging 5.25 targets per game. Not great, but usable numbers, especially ahead of an easy Week 16 draw against the Jets. He’s playing roughly 70% of the snaps and running plenty of routes. The Jets are 26th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends.

Foster Moreau vs. Broncos – Darren Waller (knee, back) remains sidelined at Raiders practice and looks likely to miss his fourth straight game. After disappointing Weeks 13-14, Moreau had a big game against the Browns last week, turning a team-high nine targets into 7-65 as the week’s overall TE9. Moreau played every single offensive snap against Cleveland. The Broncos have allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to tight ends, but Moreau’s every-snap role is extremely valuable when making fantasy decisions.

Nick Mensio

Nick Mensio has been covering the NFL for NBC Sports Edge since 2012. He can be found on Twitter at @NickMensio.