Every week, I will be going around the league and touching on the NFL’s most important fantasy football topics. This week, I look at several PPR players who you may consider starting in fantasy football in Week 4. This includes Darren Waller, Russell Gage, Rex Burkhead and others in the Patriots backfield, and Kareem Hunt. Plus, I throw in a bonus player heading into Week 5 with an analysis on Steelers WR Diontae Johnson.
Should I be concerned about Raiders TE Darren Waller after a disappointing Week 3 performance?
With everyone watching on Monday Night Football, Waller just exploded against the New Orleans Saints with a dozen catches for 105 yards and a touchdown on 16 targets as the Raiders won their first game in their new stadium. The following week in New England, Waller caught just two passes for four yards. What gives?
Folks, if you don’t know this by now, it is time you learned and it’s very important for fantasy football – that is what Bill Belichick does. Belichick takes away what offenses love most and forces them to play left-handed. This was incredibly obvious last Sunday.
Waller was very often double-teamed. In fact, sometimes Belichick aligned reigning Defensive MVP, Stephon Gilmore, on Waller in man coverage. While Waller’s fantasy owners are disappointed with last week’s results, they should also take this as a compliment. The greatest of defensive minds realized just how important Waller is to Las Vegas’ offense and how dangerous he is overall.
Waller is a superstar in the making with ridiculous mismatch abilities that Jon Gruden utilizes extremely well. The Raiders are dealing with a lot of wide receiver injuries at the moment and it is difficult to tell if that will make it easier for upcoming defenses to make Waller’s life more difficult or if the lack of other receivers will mean more targets for Waller.
Either way, you endured his worst week of the year in Week 3 and while you shouldn’t expect those Week 2 numbers game after game, Waller is now in the conversation with George Kittle and Travis Kelce as the top tight end option in fantasy football.
Can Russell Gage be a dependable week-to-week starter in a pass-happy Falcons offense?
The Falcons are amongst the NFL’s most pass-happy teams and that should continue all year. They don’t run the ball well or consistently and their defense is very questionable. Therefore, it is on Matt Ryan to move the football and put up points.
Without a running game, Atlanta hasn’t been able to close out their opponents, but Ryan and the Falcons passing game certainly isn’t to blame. Last week, in another disastrous loss in which Atlanta held a big lead late in the game, Julio Jones was inactive. That set up extremely well for Gage, but the Falcons primary slot receiver left that game with a concussion and finished the day with just two catches for 26 yards.
However, in the first two games of the season (with Jones in the lineup by the way), Gage was targeted 21 times. He racked up 114 yards against Seattle on opening day. Wide receivers have destroyed the Seahawks this year, but when all of Atlanta’s receiving options were healthy, it sure looked like Gage was ahead of Hayden Hurst in the pecking order.
Being the Falcons third option – and often seeing favorable single coverage – makes Gage very fantasy relevant. In fact, he might be a startable WR3 or Flex option on a weekly basis. If Jones is in or out of the lineup, it really doesn’t matter all that much for Gage and Calvin Ridley is outproducing every wide receiver in the league right now.
But this passing pie is very large and can feed all three. Obviously, you must track Gage’s availability for this week’s game in Green Bay. After that, Gage has an awesome schedule lined up against Carolina, Minnesota, Detroit, and then Carolina again.
Can I trust RB Rex Burkhead in a crowded backfield with Damien Harris, James White, and Sony Michel?
The Patriots backfield is the most unpredictable in the NFL every year. New England adjusts week to week with how they attack the opposing defense more than any team in the league and have a variety of running backs to make this happen.
The Patriots historically have a big pounder (think LeGarrette Blount) and a receiving back (James White is the perfect example). These two both are listed as running backs, but that is about the only thing they have in common. Lately, it seems as though New England is getting away from such distinct polar opposite running backs.
Burkhead is more receiver than a bruiser, but he can do some of both. Sony Michel had a lot of receiving potential coming out of college when the Patriots drafted him in the first round. We haven’t seen him catch passes in the pros though and he has quickly lost a lot of juice overall.
Damien Harris, who was projected to be New England’s starting running back before he was injured, is closer to Blount than White, but he has receiving skills as well. Harris has now been activated from the injured reserve list and White is back with the team after his family’s terrible tragedy.
But Burkhead is coming off an impressive performance in which he combined for 98 yards and three touchdowns. This was a game in which New England just dominated the Raiders in time of possession. Will Belichick ride Burkhead’s hot hand (although Michel ran for 117 yards last week too) or will Harris and/or White be the back getting the touches in Kansas City this week?
This is a hunch and who are we to get into Belichick’s mind, but this looks like a White game in order to keep up with Patrick Mahomes and company. And going forward, the running backs to own in fantasy are White and Harris. Burkhead was fun while he lasted.
Will Kareem Hunt overtake Nick Chubb in the Browns backfield or will they continue to split touches throughout the season?
Hunt is an excellent football player that would be the clear lead back on about 20 teams in the NFL right now. But obviously Nick Chubb, an elite pure runner, stands in Hunt’s way in that regard in Cleveland. With Kevin Stefanski now in charge, we know exactly how the Browns want to play on offense.
They have upgraded their offensive line and tight end position dramatically while doing little at wide receiver behind Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, who have only been targeted a combined 35 times through three games.
Cleveland is going to play a lot of two back, often with a fullback, but also with Hunt and Chubb on the field together at times. They are going to play a lot of double tight end sets, but very few three wide receiver personnel groupings by today’s NFL’s standards. They are going to take the pressure off Baker Mayfield with the running game and use a lot of play-action to help their quarterback as much as possible.
That is outstanding and fits what the Browns now have at their disposal very well. In fact, over the past two weeks, those tactics have worked perfectly. But they were games against the Bengals on a very short week in which Cincinnati’s defense looked awful and Washington, a team that turned the ball over far too much and has more than their share of other problems.
Against poor teams, Chubb will flourish on the ground and Hunt will get his as well. Against stiffer competition, Chubb, who has only been targeted three times this year, could get the short end of the fantasy stick. Meanwhile, Hunt has been targeted 11 times, sometimes as Cleveland’s slot receiver, and has been handed the ball another 39. He should continue to get between 10-15 touches per game no matter the game script making him a RB2 or Flex with potential for more if the Browns are forced to throw for much of the second half.
Mayfield has only thrown the ball 85 times. Kirk Cousins is the only quarterback that has played all three games throwing it less. Cleveland will have to pass more going forward. And this goes without saying, but if Chubb were to fall to injury, Hunt becomes one of the most valuable players at any position in fantasy football.
The Steelers aren’t playing in Week 4, but what should I do with WR Diontae Johnson in Week 5?
Diontae Johnson is the Steelers number one receiver and there is a lot of proof to back that up. During the first two weeks, Johnson led this team in targets by a very wide margin. Before he left last week’s game with a concussion, the Texans shadowed Johnson with their best cornerback, Bradley Roby. After Johnson exited, Roby didn’t shadow anyone.
Now that isn’t to say that Johnson will dominate targets in an Antonio Brown-like fashion, but his game does resemble the former Steeler in quite a few ways. And Pittsburgh uses him in the same way with JuJu Smith Schuster in the slot, where he absolutely does his best work.
Johnson is an exceptional route runner with better speed than given credit for. He is a great punt returner with rare abilities in the open field with the ball in his hands. Johnson is a budding star and not only does Pittsburgh have Smith Schuster, but they also have the promising James Washington and Chase Claypool, who ended up playing the most wide receiver snaps for Pittsburgh last week.
Eric Ebron’s role also seems to be growing, but Ben Roethlisberger has done a great job this year as a distributor. Getting all of Pittsburgh’s weapons the action they deserve still won’t be easy. That being said, when Johnson is healthy, he is the one you can count on every week. And since the Steelers matchup in Tennessee was pushed back a week, there is now a better chance that Johnson gets out of concussion protocol before they kick off in Week 5.
Matt Williamson is a Senior NFL Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter: @WilliamsonNFL.