Fantasy Football Week 12 Sleepers at Every Position
It's both the best and worst time of the year in fantasy football.
The good news is that with both Thanksgiving and (thankfully, so to speak) the bye weeks in the rear-view mirror, fantasy owners head into this all-important Week 12 with more players available than have been in some time.
And for many of them, the edict is clear. Suffer any more losses, and they can kiss the fantasy playoffs goodbye.
The bad news is that with injuries and under-performers still very much a factor in fantasy football, many of those same fantasy owners are staring at holes in their lineup.
Holes that could sink the entire season (once again, so to speak).
Luckily, in each and every week there are under-the-radar players whose situation and/or matchup portends the possibility of a season-saving performance.
Here are some of the leading candidates to ride to the rescue in Week 12.
Before we dive into the Week 12 picks, let's take a look back at Week 11 and see who came up big and who crawled into a hole.
If a player I recommended finished inside weekly starter territory (the top 12 quarterbacks, tight ends and defenses, top 24 running backs and top 36 wide receivers), I'm calling that a win.
Jay Cutler, QB, Miami Dolphins (83 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 1 rushing yard, QB28): This is the second time I've made the mistake of trusting Jay Cutler as a fantasy starter in 2017. It will also be the last—injury or no. LOSS
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (154 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 4 rushing yards, QB25): I could blame the nasty weather in Cleveland for this one. Instead I think I'll just go ahead and blame the nastiness that is Blake Bortles. LOSS
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants (205 passing yards, 5 rushing yards, QB27): You ever get the feeling it just isn't going to be your day? I'm starting to have that feeling about the Week 11 calls. Things are starting to get pretty ugly. LOSS
Rex Burkhead, RB, New England Patriots (5 carries, 16 yards, 4 receptions, 21 yards, RB37): This is an object lesson in the dangers in trusting any Patriots tailback in fantasy football. Even in a big win, Burkhead was barely used. LOSS
Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins (7 carries, 4 yards, 1 catch, 10 yards, RB59): I will now begin working on the invention of a time machine, so I can go back and change the Week 11 recommendations. Because so far these have been legitimately awful. LOSS
Jamaal Williams, RB, Green Bay Packers (18 carries, 57 yards, 4 receptions, 38 yards, RB21): The Packers got rolled and Williams hardly shined, but he at least cracked the top 24 and got me off the skids for the week. WIN
Dontrelle Inman, WR, Chicago Bears (3 receptions, 43 yards, WR50): Being the No. 1 wide receiver for an NFL team is of little use to fantasy owners if said NFL team is terrible at the whole passing the football thing. LOSS
Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (5 catches, 45 yards, WR40): That nasty weather in Cleveland may well have been the deciding factor in this one, as this was easily Lee's worst stat line in the better part of a month. LOSS
Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys (4 receptions, 35 yards, WR48): The Dallas offense has completely fallen apart without Tyron Smith on the field. I'll confess I underestimated just how badly his absence would affect the passing game. LOSS
Charles Clay, TE, Buffalo Bills (3 receptions, 27 yards, TE20): The debut of the Nathan Peterman era was also probably the end of the Nathan Peterman era. His Week 11 performance against the Chargers more or less mirrors mine in this column last week. LOSS
Tyler Kroft, TE, Cincinnati Bengals (2 catches, 12 yards, 1 touchdown, TE12): Kroft found the end zone against a Denver defense that's struggled to defend tight ends, but I'll confess I was hoping for a bit more than two grabs for 12 yards. WIN
Arizona Cardinals Defense/Special Teams (357 yards allowed, 31 points allowed, 1 interception, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, D/ST19): The Cardinals getting rolled by the Tom Savage-led Houston Texans sums up this dumpster fire of a week quite nicely. LOSS
WEEK 10 TOTAL: 2/12 (.167)
There's no excuse whatsoever for this. It was a miserable, absolute failure of a week. My worst of the year and then some.
I Peterman'd. I Kizer'd.
All there is to do now though is dust myself off, shake off the loss and get back after it.
SEASON TOTAL: 60/132 (.455)
Sleeper of the Week
Cincinnati Bengals Defense/Special Teams (vs. CLE)
We'll start the Week 12 redemption tour on the defensive side of the ball. Partly because the three games on Thanksgiving cut down on the available offensive sleepers.
But mostly it's because the stretch run's being underway means fantasy owners need every edge they can get in their weekly matchups.
Like, say, a sneaky advantage at the most overlooked position in fantasy football.
For the season, the Cincinnati Bengals rank just inside the top 15 in fantasy points for the season. It isn't awful, but it's also not enough to keep them on active rosters in most leagues.
That same Bengals defense is 12th in total defense, 27th at stopping the run, sixth against the pass and 10th in scoring. They've also piled up the fourth-most sacks in the NFL, which should appeal to fantasy owners.
The fact they've forced the fifth-fewest turnovers in the NFL? Not so much.
However, if ever there was a week for the Bengals to bump their paltry takeaway numbers, it's Sunday when the Cleveland Browns visit Paul Brown Stadium.
The Browns have turned the ball over a staggering 28 times in 2017. That's nearly three giveaways a game. They've also thrown 20 interceptions as a team—far and away the most in the National Football League.
The Browns are 28th in the NFL in total offense. Cleveland ranks dead last in scoring with just 15 points per game.
And no team in the league has allowed more fantasy points to team defenses in 2017 than the Browns.
Other than that, though, this is just a guess.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at ATL)
The 2017 season hasn't gone as hoped for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs entered this year with plenty of buzz as a postseason contender. Then they peeled off six losses over their first eight games.
At 4-6 in a loaded NFC, Tampa has to win out to have any shot at making the playoffs. That isn't going to happen. In fact, the Buccaneers will probably lose this week against the surging Atlanta Falcons.
However, in last week's win over the Miami Dolphins, amid this season of disappointment, we were reminded of something.
Ryan Fitzpatrick remains capable of occasionally lighting up an NFL defense.
Playing for the injured Jameis Winston, Fitzpatrick threw for 275 yards and two scores with a passer rating of over 100 against the Fins. It was a vast improvement on his play the week before against the New York Jets.
The well-traveled veteran did an excellent job of spreading the ball around in that game, completing at least two passes to eight receivers. It was a reminder that for all their problems, the Buccaneers post a deep receiving corps.
The Falcons aren't a great fantasy matchup for quarterbacks, but they also aren't a terrible one: They rank 13th in fantasy points per game allowed to the position.
But if you combine that slightly above-average matchup with the fact Tampa's likely going to be playing catch-up Sunday, you get the recipe for a stat line similar to last week.
And in Week 11, "Fitzy" ranked 10th among fantasy signal-callers.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens (vs. HOU)
Joe Flacco is not having the best season of his NFL career.
In fact, you could argue Flacco's having the worst season of his 10-year career. Flacco has just nine touchdown passes over 10 games against 11 interceptions. His passer rating of 74.1 is the second-worst of his 10 seasons in the NFL.
Most importantly, Flacco's a miserable 30th in fantasy points at the quarterback position after 11 weeks.
That's lower than Trevor Siemian (who was benched weeks ago) and Carson Palmer (who broke his arm on October 22).
Last week, in a 23-0 shutout win over the Green Bay Packers, Flacco threw for all of 183 yards with a single touchdown pass.
And…I've just about talked myself out of this one.
On Monday night, the Ravens play host to a Houston Texans team that's been great at stopping the run this year. Houston is seventh in the NFL in run defense, allowing just 92 yards per game. No NFL team has surrendered fewer fantasy points to running backs this season.
Against the pass, it's been a different story. The Texans are 26th in pass defense, and no NFL team has given up more fantasy points to quarterbacks.
The Texans pass defense just allowed 257 passing yards, three scores and a QB7 fantasy finish to Blaine Gabbert of the Arizona Cardinals.
If Flacco can't throw against this team, then maybe all the doom-and-gloomers are right.
Maybe he's done.
Devontae Booker, RB, Denver Broncos (at OAK)
Losers of six straight for the first time in over a quarter-century, the Denver Broncos are in free-fall. Earlier this week the Broncos made a change on offense, firing offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
If last week was any indication, there were other offensive changes afoot even before that.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, tailback Devontae Booker saw a much larger role than batterymate C.J. Anderson. In 48 offensive snaps (19 more than Anderson), Booker touched the ball 19 times, picking up 98 total yards.
By weight of comparison, Anderson touched the ball 15 times for 56 total yards. Granted, it was Anderson who got the short-yardage touchdown, but he also lost a costly fumble.
It's the continuation of a trend that's been developing for weeks. The ineffective Anderson has been losing touches, and Booker's been gaining them. Last week at least, the young tailback made the most of the increased workload.
This week the Broncos head west to face an Oakland team that made a change of their own this week, letting defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. go. It's not hard to see why; the Raiders are 26th in total defense and have given up the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs this season.
With youngster Paxton Lynch starting for Denver, the Broncos are going to want to establish the run. And if recent weeks are any indication, that could mean Booker's heaviest workload of the season in a highly favorable fantasy matchup.
Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots (vs. MIA)
One would think that this writer would have learned his lesson about trusting tailbacks for the New England Patriots.
But at this point in the season, beggars can't be choosers when looking for under-the-radar fantasy plays.
And it may well be that I just picked the wrong New England running back last time.
The problem with the Patriots is that the usage among their tailbacks bounces all over the place. However, over the last few weeks, both Dion Lewis' workload and production have stayed relatively stable.
Last week against the Oakland Raiders, Lewis touched the ball 14 times for 88 yards and a score. It marked his fifth straight game with over 10 touches and 50 yards from scrimmage, and in three of those games the 27-year-old found the end zone.
From all indications, it's Lewis who has emerged as the favorite son among New England's running backs, especially on the ground.
In Week 12 the Patriots play host to the floundering Miami Dolphins, who have dropped four straight games. But for all their problems, the Fins have at least been average against the run. Miami's 14th in the NFL in run defense (allowing 109.9 yards per game), and it has surrendered the 17th-most PPR fantasy points to running backs.
But as the lead back for the NFL's most potent offense (and the player Bill Belichick appears to trust with fourth-quarter carries), Lewis is worth rolling out even in the so-so matchup.
J.D. McKissic, RB, Seattle Seahawks (at SFO)
To be fair, the Seattle Seahawks have been a mess on the ground this season. The team ranks a so-so 17th in the NFL in rushing (at 104.2 yards per game), but the team's leading rusher is Russell Wilson. Outside the star quarterback, no player on Seattle's roster has even 210 rushing yards for the season.
And yet here we are.
The reasons for recommending J.D. McKissic as a potential sleeper in Week 12 are three-fold.
The first is the player himself. McKissic was the team's best back in terms of total yards last Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, piling up 53 yards on 12 total touches.
Hardly a jaw-dropping number, but bear with me.
The second reason is opportunity. McKissic and Mike Davis split carries against Atlanta, but McKissic made it through the game relatively unscathed. Davis, on the other hand, did not. He suffered a groin injury that head coach Pete Carroll said will probably keep him off the field against the San Francisco 49ers.
The third reason is those 49ers. The Niners are terrible at stopping the run, allowing over 130 yards per game on the ground. They've also given up the most fantasy points per game to running backs this season.
Davis is on the shelf. Eddie Lacy is awful. So is San Francisco's run defense.
The stars are aligned for a big game from McKissic.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, San Francisco 49ers (vs. SEA)
Marquise Goodwin of the San Francisco 49ers has not exactly been a high-volume pass-catcher in recent weeks. The fifth-year pro has all of three catches over his last three games combined, and as recently as Week 8 he was shut out on the stat sheet.
Of course, when you see that those three grabs went for a combined 151 yards (including an 83-yard score two weeks ago against the New York Giants), things start looking up a tad.
Is 50 yards per catch good? It sounds good.
Look a little deeper, and things get better still. In each of Goodwin's last four home games, he's posted at least 60 receiving yards, including a four-catch, 80-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys back in Week 7. In those contests he's averaged 11.5 PPR fantasy points.
That's not going to win you a week single-handedly, but it isn't cat food either.
This week the 49ers face a Seattle pass defense that's been ravaged by injuries. Cornerback Richard Sherman is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Rookie Shaquill Griffin is in the concussion protocol and iffy to play. And per Adam Rank of NFL.com, that same Seahawks defense has given up the fourth-most fantasy points in the league to wideouts over the last four weeks.
Odds are pretty good (say about 119 percent) that San Francisco will be trailing in this game and forced to throw constantly in the second half.
Which sets up Goodwin to help bring home a good win.
See what I did there?
Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills (at KCC)
Who wouldn't want a piece of Buffalo's passing game? As we saw firsthand last week, the Greatest Show on Turf has nothing on the uncanny ability of rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman…
...to target players on the other team.
Kidding aside, after Peterman's historically bad debut, it's no surprise that Bills head coach Sean McDermott has already named Tyrod Taylor the starter in Week 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The question now becomes who Taylor will throw to.
Jordan Matthews was inactive last week against the Los Angeles Chargers. Kelvin Benjamin got hurt in that game, and while he avoided serious injury and is considered "day-to-day", McDermott's silence about Benjamin's Week 12 availability likely means he'll be missing.
Enter rookie wideout Zay Jones.
After a miserable start to the season, Jones appears to be getting his sea legs a bit. Jones caught four passes for a career-high 68 yards last week against the Chargers, and over the last two weeks he has a respectable 10 receptions for 121 yards.
Should Benjamin and Matthews both sit out Week 12 (a real possibility), Jones could be in for a big uptick in targets. Not only that, but the Bills will probably be trailing against a Chiefs defense that's given up the most fantasy points in the AFC to wide receivers in 2017.
Just pray the only thing Peterman holds in the game is a clipboard.
Kenny Stills, WR, Miami Dolphins (at NEP)
Some people might argue that Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills doesn’t qualify as a “sleeper.” After all, Stills hauled in seven catches for 180 yards and a touchdown last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Stills has 40 catches for 588 yards and five touchdowns this season.
However, per Field Yates of ESPN, Stills is owned in just over 27 percent of fantasy leagues at that site. And any player who is sitting on the waiver wire in almost three of four leagues has intact snoozer status.
Fantasy owners should wake up to Stills in Week 12. As a matter of fact, they should jump out of bed and plug him into starting lineups.
There’s a two-word reason why…Matt Moore.
As the Associated Press reported (via the Los Angeles Times), Jay Cutler has been ruled out with a concussion in Week 12. That means it will me Moore who will be under center for the Dolphins against the Patriots—just as he was for much of Stills’ outburst last week.
Simply put, Moore loves throwing it to Stills. According to Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports, in the three Games Moore has played in in 2017, he’s targeted Stills 27 times, connecting on 13 of those targets for 330 yards and three scores.
Over half Stills’ production in 2017 has come in those three games in which Moore was on the field.
This week, the Dolphins travel to face the bid bad Patriots. They will likely be playing from behind against a New England team giving up the third-most PPR fantasy points to wide receivers in 2017.
A Patriots team Stills scored against both times the teams played a year ago.
Jared Cook, TE, Oakland Raiders (vs. DEN)
Mention the name "Jared Cook" to a longtime fantasy football player and you'll likely get a reaction similar to that when you bring up Eric Ebron of the Detroit Lions.
A dirty look. Maybe some mumbling. Perhaps a word or two I can't print here.
There's a reason for that. Whether it was in Nashville, St. Louis, Green Bay or Oakland, Cook has made of career of occasionally exploding for big games only to vanish just as quickly.
He's long on talent and potential, and short on consistent production.
Cook just peeled off one of those huge games. Back in a Week 9 win over the Miami Dolphins, Cook piled up eight catches for 126 yards. Then, in his next game against the New England Patriots, Cook had just two grabs for 36 yards.
It was classic Jared Cook.
Well, here we go—back into the pressure Cook-er.
I am on fire with the wordplay!
To Cook's credit, he'd been on a roll of sorts before that big night in Miami. Over the previous two weeks, Cook caught an average of five passes for 82 yards per game.
Sunday's matchup with the Broncos bodes well for another big afternoon. In Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, the Broncos have two of the NFL's best corners on the outside. But it's been a different story over the middle, as the Broncos have allowed the third-most fantasy points to tight ends in 2017.
I may well live to regret it, but I'm starting Cook in multiple leagues in Week 12.
Tyler Kroft, TE, Cincinnati Bengals (vs. CLE)
As I've said more than once in this piece over the last three months or so, I've tried to keep repeat calls to a minimum in this column. Redundancy isn't especially appealing—or helpful.
Also, Tyler Kroft caught all of two passes for 12 yards in last week's victory over the Denver Broncos, a stat line that doesn't inspire a ton of confidence—even if one of those grabs went for six points.
However, in his defense Kroft's been solid for the Bengals in place of the injured Tyler Eifert this season. Kroft's 28 receptions and 303 receiving yards both rank third on the team. Last week's touchdown grab was his fourth of the season, second on the team only to A.J. Green.
In any event, this call (much like last week's) has less to do with Kroft as a player than it does with the Bengals' opponent.
The Cleveland Browns have had about as much luck defending the tight end position this season as they have had doing everything else. Among NFL teams, only the New York Giants have allowed more PPR fantasy points to the position.
Kroft left last week's win for a time with a hand injury but was able to return. Assuming he's on the field Sunday, Kroft should be in fantasy lineups.
Back in Week 4, Kroft torched the Browns for 68 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.
Tennessee Titans Defense/Special Teams (at IND)
The Tennessee Titans didn't light it up defensively last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Titans allowed 40 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers and finished the week 21st in fantasy points.
Of course, not many fantasy owners had the Titans in their starting lineups on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL.
It's a different story in Week 12, because while the Titans will once again be away from home on Sunday, that's about the only thing the two matchups have in common.
The Titans travel to face an Indianapolis Colts team that ranks 28th in total offense, 24th in rushing offense, 25th in passing offense and 25th in scoring.
A juggernaut, they aren't.
It isn't just their inability to move the ball consistently that makes the Colts an appealing fantasy matchup. Indianapolis leads the NFL in sacks allowed with 39—3.9 per game—and they've given the ball away 12 times.
Most importantly, no team not named the Cleveland Browns has surrendered more fantasy points per game to opposing team defenses than the Colts.
Also, before last week's drubbing the Titans were trending upward defensively—10th in fantasy points per game from Weeks 7-10.
The Titans will be back in the top 10 in Week 12—and maybe the top five.