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Fantasy Playbook: The Dark Horses That Could Swing Your Playoffs

No matter how stacked your team is, you can never stop playing the waiver wire

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Week 13 is in the books, which means for most leagues, it’s officially fantasy football playoffs time. If your team was good and/or lucky enough to earn a postseason berth, you’re probably going to be relying on the handful of consistent, high-volume players who carried you to the playoffs from here on out. But thanks to injuries, suspensions, and ever-evolving player-usage trends, just about every squad, even stacked playoff teams, will have a few tough lineup decisions to make over the next few weeks—and making the right decisions could be what separates the league champion from the also-rans. When making those calls, it makes sense to focus on recent trends, where players with the proverbial hot-hand could have the potential to swing your matchups over the next few weeks, rather than season-long narratives.

Here’s a few flex-level players that have quietly (or not so quietly) caught fire as of late—or look ready to break out as major fantasy factors.

WR Marqise Lee, Jaguars

Lee would be a bigger name in the fantasy realm right now if it weren’t for tough matchups against the Browns and Cardinals in Weeks 11 and 12 in which he drew shadow coverage from Jason McCourty and Patrick Peterson and caught just six combined passes for 58 yards. In the four games prior to those two outings, though, Lee racked up 39 targets, catching 23 passes for 285 yards and two scores and double-digit totals in PPR leagues in each. He bounced back on Sunday against a bad Colts pass defense, reeling in seven passes on 10 targets for 86 yards and a touchdown, including this unbelievable one-handed grab:

Jags rookie Dede Westbrook has become more involved in the passing attack lately, but Lee remains Blake Bortles’s top target. He’s somehow owned in just 57 percent of ESPN leagues, and was started in just 26 percent of them last week. That should change going forward with his performance against Indianapolis, and we could see more of the same in matchups with the Richard Sherman–less Seahawks, the Texans (who came into last week 17th against the pass per DVOA), and the lowly 49ers (29th). As teams continue to stack the box to try to stop Leonard Fournette and the team’s run game, Jacksonville may continue to open things up more and more with Bortles, who has now attempted 30-plus passes in five straight games. Lee could be the beneficiary of that uptick down the stretch.

WR Marquise Goodwin, 49ers

Don’t look now, but the 49ers’ passing attack just became more fantasy relevant. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s final stat line of 293 yards and one interception in his first start on Sunday against the Bears is wildly misleading because he looked a hell of a lot sharper and more dynamic than the box score indicated. The former Patriots signal-caller sat calmly in the pocket to throw downfield, moved away from pressure to keep plays alive, and made a handful of thread-the-needle passes, giving a slumping San Francisco offense new life. Goodwin was the main beneficiary: The 5-foot-9, 179-pound former Bills receiver reeled in eight catches on eight targets for 99 yards and looked like Garoppolo’s go-to guy.

Goodwin proved that he’s more than just a one-trick-pony deep threat, catching toe-touch passes on the sideline and slants over the middle to pick up yards after the catch. It’s not like it was Goodwin’s first good game this year—he’s scored in the double digits in PPR leagues in each of his past three games and has quietly posted 35 catches for 677 yards and one touchdown on the year, with a league-best 19.3 yards-per-catch average. Owned in 15.2 percent of ESPN leagues, he could be worth a look at your flex spot with favorable matchups against the Texans (17th against the pass per DVOA) and Titans (24th) on the slate.

RB Mike Davis, Seahawks

The Seahawks’ running backs group has been a fantasy wasteland since rookie Chris Carson went down with a leg fracture in Week 4. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s 432 rushing yards is more than twice as many as the closest back on the team, Eddie Lacy (179). But Davis has been a source of light in all that running-back-room darkness, and he showed quickness, burst, agility, and power against the Eagles’ top-ranked rush defense on Sunday, carrying the ball 16 times for 64 yards while adding four catches for 37 yards through the air.

The former 49ers fourth-rounder played 45 of the Seahawks’ 61 offensive snaps Sunday, and earned a chance to take on an even bigger part of the game plan going forward, at least before Carson returns, which is expected to happen late in the year. It helps too that the Seahawks’ offensive line has improved marginally throughout the season, with the trade for former Texan Duane Brown, the return of Luke Joeckel from knee surgery, and the continued development of right guard Ethan Pocic and right tackle Germain Ifedi. No one’s going to confuse this team for the 2012-14 era Seahawks squads that ran all over the NFL, but Pete Carroll still wants a tone-setting ground game to go with his explosive passing offense, and he’s shown a pretty dogged persistence to getting that jump-started all year. Seattle gets the Jaguars (who came into this week 24th vs. the run per DVOA) and Rams (19th) over the next two weeks, and Davis could find himself getting plenty of touches. He’s no sure thing—no Seahawks back could hope to be at this point—but Davis is owned in just 2.9 percent of ESPN leagues and could be worth a waiver claim.

WR Josh Gordon, Browns

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about Gordon’s triumphant return to football. Playing in his first game in 35 months on Sunday, he hit the ground running, reeling in four catches for 85 yards on 11 targets against the Chargers, including this beautiful catch over one of the league’s top cornerbacks, Casey Hayward.

What Gordon did after such a long absence was nothing short of astounding. Running nearly three-quarters of his routes against a guy that looks primed to earn All-Pro honors this year, the 26-year-old pass catcher’s 85 yards came in just behind Odell Beckham Jr. as the second-most L.A. had given up to any receiver this year. In the Browns offense, you’ll be disappointed more often than not chasing any semblance of consistency. But Gordon proved he still has the talent to go up against the best of the best, and it sure looks like Cleveland is content to feed him the ball in the passing game. He’ll get a juicy fantasy matchup this week against the Packers’ 22nd-ranked pass defense by DVOA.

WR Jamison Crowder, Redskins

There’s no way around it: Crowder had a nightmare of a game last Thursday against the Cowboys. He had one red zone pass go off his hands for a Dallas interception, fumbled during a punt return, and nearly fumbled again later (it was reversed upon review). But one bad game’s not going to take him out of Washington’s injury-depleted offense, where Crowder is sure to remain one of Kirk Cousins’s go-to guys. Over the past four weeks, Josh Doctson has probably been a bigger-name fantasy target as a developing go-up-and-get-it type of red zone threat, and he has outpaced Crowder in touchdowns over that time two-to-one. But Crowder’s still seen more red zone targets (11 to 10) and made more catches inside the 20 (five to four) than Doctson—plus he’s been far more heavily utilized everywhere else on the field. Crowder has had 36 targets come his way (tied for seventh leaguewide) over the team’s past four games, with 23 catches (tied for 10th), 356 yards (seventh), and a touchdown at 15.5 yards per catch.

From a fantasy perspective, it helps that the Redskins defense has fallen apart over the past two months too, surrendering 30-plus points in five of their past seven games. That means we could see Washington involved in high-scoring contests in upcoming matchups with the Chargers and Cardinals, ripe ground for big pass numbers. Crowder started in just 66.4 percent of ESPN leagues last week—and while he may be small in stature, he should be a big part of the team’s passing game down the stretch.

RB Kenyan Drake, Dolphins

In the four games following the Dolphins’ trade of Jay Ajayi to the Eagles, Drake made the most of his limited opportunities in a time-share with Damien Williams. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 32 totes while adding 12 catches in the passing game to hit the double-digit-point mark in PPR leagues in three of those outings. But with Williams sidelined due to a shoulder injury this week against the Broncos, Drake seized the opportunity for a full load. The former Crimson Tide star ran the ball 23 times for 120 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and a score in Miami’s blowout win, adding three catches for 21 yards in the passing game. He looked decisive and elusive with the ball and averaged 4.61 yards after contact per carry. On this 42-yard touchdown scamper, he showed vision to avoid the first would-be tackler, then burst to change direction and race through another before breaking free.

Drake’s a proven home run hitter—that was his third run this year of 40-plus yards—but by picking up 141 all-purpose yards on a career-high 26 touches, he showed he can shoulder the role of a bell-cow back, too. Williams’s status remains up in the air—he seems to want to play this week, but the team’s not sure if he’ll be able to—and if there’s any doubt, head coach Adam Gase showed he has no trouble funneling the offense through his second-year back. Drake’s owned in 68.7 percent of ESPN leagues and got the start in just 37.9 percent of them last week, but with Miami playing host to the Patriots and their 29th-ranked rush defense this week, he’s worth a spot in your lineup—even if the Dolphins get behind early and are forced to play catch-up, Drake can make his mark as a pass catcher out of the backfield.