Antonio Brown left Week 15 with a partially torn calf muscle and will not play in Week 16. This is a significant blow for fantasy owners as we head to the fantasy championship round. There is no easy fix for replacing fantasy’s overall WR1. One player who may help soften the blow to fantasy owners in Week 16 is Brown’s teammate, Martavis Bryant. Bryant entered 2017 with huge expectations after missing 2016 due to suspension. He was drafted as a low-WR2 in most leagues but has been a massive disappointment. Bryant enters Week 16 as just the overall WR54 in standard leagues. Bryant has been passed by Juju Smith-Schuster on Pittsburgh’s depth chart and has played an ancillary role for the majority of the 2017 season. However, fantasy football is often a fickle mistress, and the injury to Brown means that Bryant will be forced to play a much bigger role this week. Bryant also has a terrific matchup against the Houston Texans on Christmas Day, and I expect him to take full advantage.
Well, we have finally reached the championship round. Congratulations on getting to this point. Whether your final round consists of a one-week head-to-head matchup or a multiple-week total, you must continue to make wise weekly decisions if you want to take home the hardware. If you have some options you are unsure about, or if you are an Antonio Brown owner trying to navigate the wide receiver landscape, matchups are the key to figuring out who to start and who to sit. Here are some of the wide receivers I am either higher or lower on than most this week, in large part due to their Week 16 matchups.
ROBERT WOODS, LOS ANGELES RAMS AT TENNESSEE TITANS
Robert Woods returned to the lineup last week following a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury. Woods finished with 45 yards and a touchdown, finishing as the overall WR23 in Week 15. Woods’ performance was especially impressive considering not only the layoff, but the game script Los Angeles faced in their blowout victory in Seattle. Jared Goff threw the ball just 21 times as the Rams jumped out to a huge early lead and never looked back. Woods should find himself squarely in the WR2 conversation once again this week when he faces the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee allowed 209 total yards to the combination of Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne in their Week 15 loss to San Francisco. The Rams should have plenty of opportunities to exploit matchups in the passing game in this contest. I expect Woods to be their primary method of doing just that. Sammy Watkins is most likely to wind up against cornerback Adoree Jackson, while Cooper Kupp should line up in the slot against Logan Ryan. Neither Jackson nor Ryan are considered elite, but they have graded out better than fellow cornerback LeShaun Sims, who is most likely to square off against Woods. I believe Woods is the one you want to start in this matchup, but I do think that all three Rams’ wide receivers are viable options. I have Robert Woods as a top-20 wide receiver this week, with Kupp and Watkins as WR3s.
MARTAVIS BRYANT, PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT HOUSTON TEXANS
As we touched on earlier, Martavis Bryant should see an increase in targets in Week 16 due to the loss of star wideout Antonio Brown. Bryant may also have some personal motivation to prove himself this week. Bryant fancies himself an elite wide receiver and was very vocal about his diminished role as Smith-Schuster began to emerge during the season. Bryant is under contract for 2018, but he will still have an opportunity to show what he can do in a featured role without Brown this week. Bryant gets a prime chance to show off his skills this week when he faces a Houston Texans team that has had tremendous difficulty in preventing big plays in the passing game. Houston has given up the fourth-most receiving yards to opposing wide receivers despite facing the eighth-fewest targets this season. Houston was torched for two top-four weekly finishes in last week’s blowout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith-Schuster is an obvious must-start, but Bryant has massive potential in this matchup as well. I project Martavis Bryant to post his first weekly WR1 finish since Week 2 in this week’s game.
STERLING SHEPARD, NEW YORK GIANTS AT ARIZONA CARDINALS
Sterling Shepard’s production has been all over the map in recent weeks. He totaled 212 yards during Weeks 9 and 10 before missing the next two games due to migraines. He came back in Week 13, only to disappoint in two very exploitable matchups against Oakland and Dallas. Shepard totaled a mere 6.3 fantasy points during those two games. Then last week, just when owners began to write him off, Shepard responded with a career-best 19.90 fantasy points in the Giants’ Week 15 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Shepard will have a chance to build on last week’s performance when the Giants travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. Shepard will likely avoid Patrick Peterson’s coverage, as he should line up primarily against slot corner Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is a solid cover corner, but he’s no Peterson. Mathieu ranks 58th out of 120 qualifying cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ coverage metrics. Considering the lack of weapons at New York’s disposal, I expect Shepard to be targeted quite a bit in this game. I believe sheer volume alone makes Sterling Shepard a top-20 option this week. If he finds his way into the end zone, he will be a top-10 fantasy wide receiver once again in this matchup.
A.J. GREEN, CINCINNATI BENGALS VS. DETROIT LIONS
A.J. Green was on a pace to set career-highs in nearly every statistical category in 2016 before a torn hamstring suffered early in Week 11 ended his season. He has not regained last year’s form in 2017. In fact, he’s had a down season by his lofty standards. His 4.79 receptions per game are the lowest since his rookie season, and his 70.0 yards per game and three 100-yard games are the lowest in his career. He currently ranks as the overall WR7, so it’s not as though he has been a complete stiff. Still, he has disappointed somewhat, particularly in recent weeks. Green has finished as a top-36 wide receiver in just one of his last four games. Green and the Cincinnati Bengals will host the Detroit Lions in Week 16. Detroit has been an average matchup for opposing wide receivers as a whole in 2017, but ranks third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA versus #1 wide receivers, thanks in large part to the play of cornerback Darius Slay. Slay has the ninth-highest cornerback grade according to Pro Football Focus and should shadow Green on the majority of snaps. Green has the ability to win against any cornerback in the NFL, but his recent play suggests it is not wise to expect a top-10 fantasy performance in Week 16. I believe A.J. Green is just a WR3/Flex play in this matchup.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS, DENVER BRONCOS AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS
You know you are a Demaryius Thomas fantasy owner when you are hoping that Brock Osweiler starts at quarterback for the Denver Broncos in Week 16. Osweiler actually looked good in Denver’s Week 15 victory in Indianapolis. Thomas finished as a WR3 in that contest. Prior to last week, Thomas had finished as a WR2 or better in four of six games. One of the games Thomas failed to secure a top-24 finish was Week 12. That is significant because that was the last time Paxton Lynch started at quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Lynch targeted Thomas five times in that game, completing four of them. However, those four catches went for a total of just 12 yards, as Lynch refused to work down the field. Thomas finished that week as the WR81, two spots ahead of Tavon Austin, who had -1 receiving yards. Word out of Denver suggests that Lynch will be given the nod once again this week. The best hope for Thomas may be that the Broncos will likely be missing Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders’ absence could leave Thomas in line for a massive target share. Even in this scenario, it’s hard to consider Thomas as anything more than a WR3 in PPR leagues, and I would not insert him into any standard league lineups in Week 16.
ROBBY ANDERSON, NEW YORK JETS VS LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
I am a huge fan of Robby Anderson. Not only do I root for the New York Jets, but I predicted before the season that Anderson would reach the 1,000-yard plateau. Even if he does not reach that mark (he is currently 112 yards shy), he will have well-exceeded expectations this season. However, that does not mean he should be started in Week 16. Anderson and the Jets come home to face the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16. Anderson is the most likely candidate to get the Casey Hayward treatment in this game. Hayward did get beat by Tyreek Hill for a long score last week, but it’s hard to imagine Anderson beating Hayward in a similar manner, especially with Bryce Petty at the helm of New York’s sputtering offense. Petty proved once again last week that he is not the Jets’ long-term answer at quarterback. He was wildly inaccurate, completing just 48.7 percent of his passes and averaging a pathetic 4.59 yards per attempt. Petty simply cannot be trusted to get the ball to Anderson in positions where he can do damage. Robby Anderson will finish 2017 as a top-20 fantasy wide receiver, but he will not be a weekly top-20 finisher this week. In fact, I do not have him in my top-40 this week.
AMARI COOPER, OAKLAND RAIDERS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Amari Cooper left Oakland’s Week 12 game after a vicious hit which resulted in a concussion and a sprained ankle. He returned in Week 14, only to leave early once again after reinjuring the same ankle making a block. Cooper is scheduled to return to action in Week 16. However, I think fantasy owners who are banking on Cooper returning are making a huge mistake. First, we have to remember that Cooper has not been very good this season. After posting consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career, Cooper has amassed just 499 receiving yards in 2017. He has posted only two weekly top-20 finishes this season. It’s not as if Cooper is a must-start even in the most ideal of conditions. Another potential pitfall for Cooper owners is that this game will be played on Monday night. Ordinarily, this might benefit a player in Cooper’s situation. However, I believe that it does exactly the opposite in this case. Oakland will almost certainly be eliminated from playoff competition by the time they play on Monday. If Oakland is indeed knocked out of the playoff picture, I think it increases the chances that they rest Cooper for another week, or perhaps even shut him down completely. If Cooper is ruled out on Monday, owners will have little choice but to take a zero. Needless to say, that is not a recipe for a fantasy championship. I would not consider Amari Cooper in any fantasy lineups in Week 16.
SLEEPER OF THE WEEK:
KENDALL WRIGHT, CHICAGO BEARS VS. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Kendall Wright has seen a whopping 24 targets in his last two games. He has parlayed that volume into 17 catches and 188 receiving yards, ranking him third and sixth respectively in those two categories during the last two weeks. Wright will look to continue that momentum in Week 16 as he and the Chicago Bears host the winless Cleveland Browns. Wright does not have the highest ceiling, but his bankable volume should come in quite handy during the fantasy championship round. He is likely to be heavily targeted once again, and Cleveland has struggled at times dealing with slot receivers. Adam Thielen, Golden Tate, and Keenan Allen have all put up top-eight weekly finishes against Cleveland. Wright is not in that class of slot receiver, but he can still put up a very usable stat line in Week 16. I believe that Kendall Wright will finish as a top-30 wide receiver in this game, with the potential for a top-20 finish if things break right for him. I would much rather take my chances on Kendall Wright than Robby Anderson or Amari Cooper in Week 16.