Fantasy Football Week 15 Sleepers at Every Position

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 15, 2018

Fantasy Football Week 15 Sleepers at Every Position

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    We've reached the Final Four.

    No, not that Final Four. March Madness takes place in, you know, March.

    In the majority of fantasy football leagues, Week 15 represents the semifinals. Only four teams are still playing. By the time the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers close out this week's slate, the championship game participants will have been determined.

    Generally speaking, teams that got this far didn't do so by sifting through the scrap heap every week.

    But things happen. Maybe you lost first Kareem Hunt and then Spencer Ware of the Kansas City Chiefs. Or wide receivers like Emmanuel Sanders. Maybe you've been streaming at the quarterback position this season. Or the dumpster fire that has been tight ends in 2018 singed your squad,

    Whatever the reason, even in this must-win week there are plenty of fantasy owners looking for a sleeper who can swoop in to save the day.

    So let's get to sleeper swooping. And sweeper slooping.

    One of those may not be right.

            

Accountability Time

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    Before we scope out the Week 15 sleeper calls, let's look back at how Week 14's picks played out.

    I'd be hard-pressed to do worse than a week ago. Sigh.

    For the record, sleepers count as wins if they finish inside weekly starter territory in a 12-team, points-per-reception fantasy league that starts one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, one defense and the always popular flex play—a fairly standard setup.

    Detroit Lions Defense/Special Teams (279 yards allowed, three points allowed, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD): The moment Darius Slay took a Josh Rosen pass back for a score, that sealed the deal for the Lions to have a good fantasy outing. WIN

    Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (147 passing yards, 2 TDs, 67 rushing yards): The Ravens lost their first game with Jackson under center, but he still had a good enough game to rank inside the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks. WIN

    Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns (238 passing yards, 2 rushing yards, 1 TD): The Browns got a win and Mayfield played well, but he didn't light up the box score. The Browns fan in me can live with that I suppose. LOSS

    LeGarrette Blount, RB, Detroit Lions (12 carries, 33 yards, 2 catches, 18 yards): The Cardinals are a good matchup. Blount had been relatively hot. Sometimes calls make sense but just don't pan out for whatever reason. LOSS

    Jeff Wilson, RB, San Francisco 49ers (23 carries, 90 yards, 1 catch, 6 yards): Wilson didn't exactly have the game I hoped he would against the Broncos, but he still checked in on the back end of the top 25 running backs. WIN

    Antonio Callaway, WR, Cleveland Browns (1 catch, 0 yards): This is a cautionary lesson about deep-threat wide receivers. When they have big games, they can be really big. But when they don't, they can all but vanish. LOSS

    Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 catch, 13 yards): Godwin was a hot waiver pickup last week, in part because everything in this matchup pointed to a big game from him. That obviously didn't come to pass. LOSS

    Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills (3 receptions, 22 yards): My three wide receiver calls for the week COMBINED for a 5/35/0 line. The only thing sadder than that is the fact it represents an improvement over Week 13. LOSS

    Chris Herndon, TE, New York Jets (1 catch, 14 yards): You know, it can't be easy to pick a group of pass-catchers who all face-plant to such a depressing extent. And yet somehow I managed to do it. Hooray for me—the anti-picker. LOSS

    Arizona Cardinals Defense/Special Teams (218 yards allowed, 17 points allowed, 1 sack, 1 FR): The Cardinals didn't get much in the big-play department, but they also allowed fewer than 225 yards of total offense. That'll do. WIN

    WEEK 14: 4-6 (.400)

    SEASON: 60-80 (.429)

    The good news is that I hit on twice as many calls as the week before.

    The bad news is that WR and TE were a disaster for the second week in a row.

Sleeper of the Week

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    Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders (at CIN)

    There was a time, not too long ago, when more than one sportswriter asked the question of whether it was time for the Oakland Raiders to move on from quarterback Derek Carr, including Bleacher Report's own Brad Gagnon.

    Of late, Carr's doing his best to answer that question with an emphatic "no."

    Over his last two games, Carr is averaging over 300 passing yards a game, with five touchdowns against zero interceptions and a passer rating of over 120. After last week's big win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said (via SB Nation's Tyler Smith) that Carr's struggles earlier in the season might be partly his fault:

    "He tries to do everything you ask him to do and he wants to do it by the book—read this play like that, go through this footwork—he really wants to do it by the book. I probably, I felt maybe I inhibited him. Free yourself, free yourself from me, free your mind, trust your instincts and go play. Don't overthink these plays, don't overthink these situations. I just didn't want to paralyze him with too many thoughts. I just wanted him to relax, go play and trust his instincts and his abilities and trust his preparation, and that's what he's done."

    Carr's future in Oakland still isn't certain, but in the here and now, he's looked good heading into a matchup with a nonexistent Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranks second in fantasy points allowed to the quarterback position this year.

Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills (vs. DET)

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    The quarterback sleepers this year have been something of a list of the usual suspects. Either Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens or Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns have been regular inclusions—with good reason.

    However, there's another rookie quarterback who is making his first appearance in this column in Week 15.

    As Graham Barfield wrote for NFL.com, it isn't Josh Allen's big right arm that has him on the streaming radar this week. It's his ability to pick up yardage with his legs:

    "It's been ugly to watch through the air (44-of-88, 597 yards, 3:4 TD-to-INT ratio, 64.4 passer rating), but Allen's legs have carried him to a string of remarkable fantasy finishes over the last three weeks. With 13/99/1, 9/135, and 9/101/1 rushing lines, Allen has recorded QB4, QB2, and QB15 fantasy performances in this three-game span. Allen does not have a floor in the passing game—which takes him out of starting consideration in shallow 10-team leagues—but he currently leads all qualifying players in yards per carry (7.4). On rushing prowess alone, Allen is a top-15 QB play in Week 15."

    Allen's 335 rushing yards over the last three games aren't just easily the most among quarterbacks over that span. It's more than every running back in the NFL except Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants.

    Trusting Allen as a starter in the fantasy playoffs would take a lot of guts.

    But given that he's averaging 100-plus rushing yards a game of late and has a score on the ground in two of his last three games, if Allen can do anything throwing the ball, he'll crack the top 10 at his position.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (vs. TB)

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    I rather hate to keep going back to the same well over and over again. But here we sit, in Week 15, and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson remains unowned in more fantasy football leagues at Yahoo than he's rostered in.

    We've hit a crossroads with Jackson—and Joe Flacco—regarding the pecking order under center for the Ravens. Despite Flacco being cleared to play and Jackson suffering his first loss as a starter last week in Kansas City, head coach John Harbaugh indicated earlier this week that Jackson will start at home Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    "Every decision is based on making us the strongest possible team we can be," Harbaugh said in a press conference Wednesday. "Whether it's quarterback or defensive line, that's the bottom line. That's what it boils down to. That's how we feel about this decision, and we're rolling."

    If the Ravens are rolling with Jackson, fantasy owners should as well. Since Week 11, when Jackson took over as the team's starting quarterback, only Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs have more fantasy points among quarterbacks than Jackson, who has dazzled with his legs and is improving with his arm.

    Add in a matchup with a Tampa Bay team that's fifth in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks this season, and the reason I keep going back to this well is that it's filled with clean, cold, high-quality H2O.

Doug Martin, RB, Oakland Raiders (at CIN)

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    The inclusion of multiple members of the Oakland Raiders means one of two things: Either I've finally gone off the deep end, or Oakland must have a really juicy fantasy matchup.

    OK, I suppose it could be both. But it's more that second one. On Sunday in Cincinnati, the Raiders will face a Bengals team that ranks dead last in the NFL in run defense, allowing 148.1 yards per game. The Bengals are surrendering 4.8 yards a carry, have allowed an AFC-high 17 rushing touchdowns and have given up the most PPR fantasy points in the NFL to running backs in 2018.

    That's a whole pile of numbers that bode well for Oakland tailback Doug Martin.

    If that isn't enough, consider the stat lines (courtesy of Heath Cummings of CBS Sports) of the tailbacks of the last eight teams to face the Bengals:

    • Austin Ekeler: 17 touches, 94 yards and a touchdown
    • Phillip Lindsay: 20 touches, 158 yards, two touchdowns
    • Nick Chubb: 31 touches, 128 yards, two touchdowns
    • Gus Edwards: 17 touches, 115 yards and a touchdown
    • Mark Ingram: 16 touches, 162 yards and a touchdown
    • Alvin Kamara: 16 touches, 102 yards, two touchdowns
    • Peyton Barber: 19 touches, 85 yards and a touchdown
    • Kareem Hunt: 20 touches, 141 yards, three touchdowns
    • James Conner: 23 touches, 129 yards, two touchdowns

    That's ridiculous.

    Martin hasn't been tearing it up lately—he's averaging less than four yards a carry and hasn't had 100 total yards in a game this year. But Martin has found the end zone in three straight games; considering the matchup, expecting a fourth straight game with a score isn't a reach.

Ito Smith, RB, Atlanta Falcons (vs. AZ)

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    Given that this is a must-win week in fantasy leagues, the idea of putting any faith in an Atlanta ground game that ranks dead last in the NFL at just 81.2 yards per game is distressing. Whether it's been Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman or Ito Smith this year, Atlanta's running game has been a running disappointment.

    However, as injuries continue to mount at running back, some fantasy owners are officially in "any port in a storm" mode—looking for anyone in the backfield who offers even a modicum of upside.

    And in Week 15, hard though it may be to believe, Smith does.

    It's gone largely unnoticed because it hasn't amounted to much yet, but the pecking order at tailback for the Falcons has shifted. Over the last couple of games, Smith has both out-touched and outgained Coleman.

    As I said, to date it hasn't really mattered. But this could be the week it does. The Arizona Cardinals are tied for 29th in the NFL in run defense, allowing just under 140 yards per game. Only the Cincinnati Bengals have surrendered more PPR fantasy points per game to running backs than the Cardinals, who have also allowed an NFL-high 18 touchdowns on the ground.

    Bad though the Falcons may be, they are better than the Cardinals. If Atlanta can carve out a lead in this game, that could mean even more touches for Smith in the second half of a great matchup.

    It's not a play for the faint of heart. But there's potential there.

DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Denver Broncos (vs. CLE)

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    Last week at this time, as fantasy owners mourned the loss of Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending Achilles tear, a lot of fantasy pundits were talking up rookie Courtland Sutton as the biggest beneficiary of that injury.

    Um…yeah. About that.

    While Sutton finished last week's loss to the San Francisco 49ers fourth on the team in targets, it was Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton who cleaned up. Patrick led the team with 85 yards on seven catches, while Hamilton added seven grabs of his own for 47 yards and a score.

    Hamilton also led all Broncos pass-catchers in snaps, playing on all but two.

    Hamilton hasn't done a lot over his brief career. Prior to last week, the rookie fourth-rounder had just five catches for the season. But the 6'1", 203-pounder showed potential as a vertical threat at Penn State in 2017, averaging over 16 yards a catch and scoring nine touchdowns.

    Hamilton, Patrick and the Broncos get a very nice fantasy matchup Saturday. The team faces the Cleveland Browns, who rank 31st in pass defense and ninth in PPR fantasy points given up to wide receivers this season.

    Of the two, my money is on Hamilton. He's a more explosive prospect and a bigger threat in the red zone.

    This isn't a play without risk. But the upside is there as well.

Dante Pettis, WR, San Francisco 49ers (vs. SEA)

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    San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis still isn't a full-time player. But as head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters this week, the team has been impressed by how Pettis has responded when forced into a larger role, and they want to get him more experience as the season winds down:

    "Yeah, that's definitely the plan right now. It started in Tampa [two weeks ago]. But that's something just realizing as coaches, Dante, we haven't been ready to throw him out there a ton because he's shown he's not 100 percent fully ready to handle that.

    "But what has been neat to watch him is, when we didn't have a choice and had to throw him out there, he did some things that he wasn't ready for that we anticipated. But, by going through it, he got better as the game went with it."

    For a guy still learning the ropes, Pettis is making a dent in fantasy circles. Last week against the Broncos, Pettis reeled in three catches for 49 yards and a score. His hot streak began with four catches for 77 yards and a score November 25 against the Buccaneers.

    And in between, Pettis exploded against the Seattle Seahawks for five receptions for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

    This week the 49ers face those same Seahawks, this time at Levi's Stadium. There's no guarantee he'll sniff his numbers from a couple of weeks ago, but at this point Pettis has earned a start as at least a fantasy WR3.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Carolina Panthers (vs. NO)

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    Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel appears to be coming into his own in the NFL.

    The 5'11", 195-pound Samuel starred at tailback at Ohio State. But making the transition to wide receiver in the NFL led to a quiet rookie season.

    In Year 2, however, Samuel is waking up. Over the last month, he's averaging over four catches a game for 60-plus yards and has a pair of touchdowns. In his last two games, Samuel has 10 catches for 168 yards.

    Those numbers have been good enough to rate Samuel 19th among receivers in PPR fantasy points since Week 11—well inside WR2 territory.

    As ESPN.com's Jim McCormick wrote, this week's home tilt with the Saints offers Samuel a great opportunity to keep that hot streak rolling along:

    "Samuel has been quietly brilliant in his shift to the starting outside role for the Panthers, averaging an awesome 16.8 yards per catch thanks to 15.3 air yards per target during the past two games. Even with Cam Newton ailing, Samuel's rapport with him on vertical opportunities is proving valuable for both real and fantasy purposes. The Saints, for their part, have allowed the most fantasy points per game to receivers this season."

    As someone who once spent an hour with Jim and Hall of Fame defensive lineman Chris Doleman debating the best pass-rushers of the last 25 years in a conference room at the Bellagio, I know better than to argue with him.

    Or Doleman, for that matter. That dude is huge.

Vernon Davis, TE, Washington Redskins (at JAX)

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    This is what it's come to—trusting players for the Washington Redskins.

    The Redskins season has gone completely off the rails due to injuries. Starting quarterback Alex Smith is in danger of never playing again after a gruesome broken leg. Backup Colt McCoy made it only a couple of games before suffering a broken leg of his own. Mark Sanchez has been sidelined by a severe case of being Mark Sanchez.

    The quarterback position isn't the only one that's been hit hard. It took a little longer than most years, but tight end Jordan Reed is once again on the shelf with a toe injury.

    That means when the Redskins take the field Sunday in Jacksonville, Josh Johnson will serve as the team's starting quarterback—and 34-year-old tight end Vernon Davis will be his safety valve underneath.

    Davis had already been playing a fairly prominent role for Washington this season. He even had more receiving yards (119) over the last three weeks than Reed (96).

    There isn't a team in the NFL that has had worse luck with injuries than the Redskins this season, but while Jacksonville's misfortune has been of a different variety, 2018 had been equally depressing. Per Andrew Gould of Fantasy Pros, one of the many things the Jags have failed at miserably is guarding tight ends, allowing seven touchdowns to the position this year.

    Johnson is a lot more likely to be dumping it over the middle than pushing the ball down the field.

    That means targets for Davis.

Detroit Lions Defense/Special Teams (at BUF)

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    Last week, the Detroit Lions were my pick as the "Sleeper of the Week."

    That played out pretty well. In a 17-3 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit allowed just 279 yards and three points, piling up three sacks and a pick-six on the way to the No. 3 performance among team defenses.

    Granted, that performance was only enough to get the Lions to 20th among fantasy defenses for the season. This isn't the Chicago Bears—or even close to it.

    But there's reason to believe those same Lions might have one more rabbit left in their proverbial hat. And that's why they're listed here a second straight week.

    That rabbit is red and blue and looks an awful lot like the Buffalo Bills. For the year, the Bills are last in the AFC in total offense at just 292 yards per game. Only the aforementioned Cardinals score fewer points per game than Buffalo's 15.5. Buffalo has allowed 39 sacks (tied for eighth-most in the NFL) and turned the ball over 28 times (second-most).

    Most importantly, no team in the NFL has given up more fantasy points to team defenses than the Bills this season.

    One week after blowing up on the West Coast, the Lions are set to do the same on the East.