Expect Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson to continue filling up the stat sheet.
Week 12 presents a bittersweet situation for fantasy football owners. On one hand, it marks the end of those pesky bye weeks, alleviating the stress of realizing that half your lineup is somewhere in Cabo for the weekend. But with the Eagles, Seahawks, Bengals and Bills off, that makes for a lot of useful idle players—especially bad news for those A.J. Green and Marshawn Lynch owners battling for a playoff spot.
Then again, with the likes of Bobby Rainey and Michael Floyd topping the scoring charts, who knows where the next breakout performance will come from. Presumably, you'll be wise enough to start Calvin Johnson, but which less-obvious players should dominate next week?
Here's an early look at the top five projected scorers at each position, with stat lines and analysis for everyone from Johnson and Johnson (the receivers, not the pharmaceutical company) to Gronk and Graham.
*All stats and point projections courtesy ESPN.com.
1. Drew Brees (@ ATL): 30-of-39, 325 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT, 29 points
2. Peyton Manning (@ NE): 31-of-43, 350 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 25 points
3. Matthew Stafford (vs. TB): 28-of-41, 330 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 23 points
4. Tony Romo (@ NYG): 25-of-37, 315 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 22 points
5. Tom Brady (vs. DEN): 28-of-38, 295 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 21 points
Drew Brees going up against the Falcons defense is reminiscent of an unstoppable force colliding with a readily movable object. Brees has thrown for over 400 yards in four consecutive weeks and encounters an Atlanta defense that has struggled all season, conceding at least 17 points in all but two of its 10 games. Thursday night games are often marred by sluggish execution, but expect the Saints offense to be razor-sharp in the Georgia Dome.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady should both put on a show in their 15th head-to-head meeting. With New England finally getting all of its offensive weapons healthy, Brady and Co. should be ready to keep pace with the Broncos in what will surely be a track meet.
Stafford and Romo make the list against two upward-trending defenses because of their consistency and surrounding weapons. The Giants have not allowed double-digit fantasy points to a quarterback during their four-game winning streak, while the Bucs have tightened up in two consecutive wins. Nevertheless, Stafford and Romo pose more potent challenges than either team has faced during their mini-streaks, and both quarterbacks remain must-starts.
1. Frank Gore (@ WSH): 110 rush yards, 14 rec yards, 2 TDs, 24 points
2. Matt Forte (@ STL): 87 rush yards, 44 rec yards, 2 TDs, 24 points
3. Ben Tate (vs. JAX): 140 rush yards, 8 rec yards, 1 TD, 20 points
4. Adrian Peterson (@ GB): 99 rush yards, 38 rec yards, 1 TD, 18 points
5. Andre Brown (vs. DAL): 130 rush yards, 42 rec yards, 0 TD, 17 points
Until a disappointing four-point showing last week, Frank Gore had scored double-digit points in seven consecutive games. Expect him to resume that streak against a Redskins defense that has given up at least 18 points to running backs in 10 of 11 games.
Matt Forte can make an equally strong claim to the top spot against the Rams. St. Louis has been wildly inconsistent against running backs this season, holding them to single digits three times, but also giving up over 25 points four times. Forte is a steady source of yards regardless of whether or not he finds the end zone, so play him with confidence.
Ben Tate and Andre Brown are perhaps not names owners are accustomed to seeing at the very top of the fantasy charts, but both should exploit tremendously favorable matchups this week. The Jaguars and Cowboys are two of the five worst fantasy run defenses, and Tate and Brown have both established themselves as the bona fide top ball-carriers in their respective offenses.
Sandwiched in between those two is Adrian Peterson, who is a bit farther down these rankings due to a somewhat neutral matchup against the Packers. Teams have stacked the box against Minnesota all year, and Peterson has felt the effects of Minnesota's inability to exploit that imbalance through the air. Green Bay limited Peterson to 60 yards on 13 carries in the Metrodome, but it goes without saying that you cannot bench AD.
1. Andre Johnson (vs. JAX): 120 yards, 2 TDs, 24 points
2. Calvin Johnson (vs. TB): 175 yards, 1 TD, 23 points
3. Dez Bryant (@ NYG): 150 yards, 1 TD, 21 points
4. Vincent Jackson (@ DET): 185 yards, 0 TD, 18 points
5. Brandon Marshall (@ STL): 120 yards, 1 TD, 18 points
Andre and Calvin Johnson have established themselves as the top two fantasy options at receiver and are likely ensconced at the top the rest of the year. The difference here merely stems from matchup—Andre gets the putrid Jaguars defense, while Calvin may at least occasionally find himself stranded on Revis Island, even in Tampa's zone-heavy schemes.
Dez Bryant may not win many fantasy Boy Scouts leagues, but the petulant wide receiver is one of the 10 most-targeted receivers in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Even against an improving Giants defense, the Romo-to-Bryant connection should thrive.
Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall both have had a couple handicaps working against them—Jackson has only been able to find the end zone in three of his team's 10 games, whereas the emergence of Alshon Jeffery has taken some targets away from Marshall. Nevertheless, Marshall scores enough touchdowns to sustain himself as a solid No. 1 receiver, and Jackson gets to face a Lions defense that has given up the third-most fantasy points to receivers this season.
1. Rob Gronkowski (vs. DEN): 88 yards, 2 TDs, 20 points
2. Jimmy Graham (@ ATL): 125 yards, 1 TD, 18 points
3. Julius Thomas (@ NE): 100 yards, 1 TD, 16 points
4. Vernon Davis (@ WSH): 66 yards, 1 TD, 12 points
5. Coby Fleener (@ ARZ): 55 yards, 1 TD, 11 points
Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas should be prime beneficiaries if the Broncos-Patriots showdown turns into a high-scoring affair. Gronkowski has traditionally torn up the Denver defense, with 233 yards and three touchdowns in three games against the Broncos since 2011, per Pro Football Reference. Meanwhile, the Patriots' corners will be busy against Denver's prolific receiving corps, which should leave Thomas free to wreak havoc against one of New England's coverage-deficient linebackers.
Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis are both studs with favorable matchups and could certainly find themselves atop this list. Davis' low-yardage, high-touchdown tendencies should be fine against a Redskins defense that has given up seven touchdowns to tight ends, the fourth-highest mark in the league. And you probably don't need much encouragement to start Graham. Despite modest production for the second straight week, Graham and his gimpy foot had an uptick in snaps, which bodes well going forward.
Coby Fleener rounds out this list due to his enormously favorable matchup against the Cardinals. Arizona has surrendered the most points to tight ends this year by a fairly wide margin. Fleener has been targeted 20 times in the last two weeks, a product of Reggie Wayne's absence. I'll assume you can do the math on this one.
1. Carolina Panthers D/ST (@ MIA): 12 points
2. Baltimore Ravens D/ST (vs. NYJ): 10 points
3. San Francisco 49ers D/ST (@ WSH): 10 points
4. Cleveland Browns D/ST (vs. PIT): 9 points
5. Kansas City Chiefs D/ST (@ SD): 8 points
The Panthers are fifth in the league with 3.2 sacks per game, while the Dolphins have conceded the most sacks in the league. A road game on a short week notwithstanding, Carolina should tee off against poor Ryan Tannehill.
The Jets are perhaps the most frustrating team in the league to evaluate, but on the road in Baltimore, the Ravens should theoretically be able to take advantage of turnover-prone rookie Geno Smith. Then again, this is the "good" week for the every-other-week Jets, so maybe New York will put up 40.
The 49ers and Browns come with no such concerns, as both are rock-solid defenses going up against struggling offenses. The Chiefs are a peg below because they are on the road against a decent Chargers offense, and there is the possibility of a letdown following Kansas City's first loss of the season. But the Chiefs will get another shot at the Broncos next week, so expect them to take out their frustrations on a reeling San Diego squad.
1. Mason Crosby (vs. MIN): 14 points
2. Stephen Gostkowski (vs. DEN): 13 points
3. Matt Prater (@ NE): 13 points
4. Garrett Hartley (@ ATL): 12 points
5. Phil Dawson (@ WSH): 12 points
Projecting kickers is not unlike picking out your clothes in the dark—you will most likely end up sorry with the results, so you really should not be doing it in the first place.
But for clarity's sake, here's the rationality behind each of the picks: Crosby has been remarkably consistent except for a blip against the Eagles two weeks ago; Gostkowski, Prater and Hartley all play for teams that should light up the scoreboards this weekend; and I realized I had a ton of 49ers on these lists, meaning that the steady Phil Dawson should receive his share of opportunities on Monday night.
Ultimately, so long as you have a kicker who has been somewhat trustworthy this season, just stick with him until he gives you reason to change. Yes, we're looking at you, Randy Bullock.