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Fantasy Playbook: Blazing Fast Playmakers Are Shaping Fantasy Football

From the Chiefs to the Ravens, offenses with wildly quick players are carving up the NFL. Plus: this week’s fantasy risers and sliders, usage trends, and waiver wire advice.

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One thing that’s become clear in the chaotic first two weeks of the NFL season is that on offense, there’s no substitute for pure, blazing speed. In a sport that increasingly looks like basketball on grass—with offenses looking for more ways to exploit individual matchups and scheme pass catchers and running backs open in space—the teams with the most explosive playmakers have a profound advantage, both on the real-life scoreboard and on the stat sheet for your fantasy squad.

That much was clear in the Chiefs’ 28-10 shellacking of the Raiders on Sunday, when reserve receivers Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman paired up to fill in for the injured Tyreek Hill. Robinson repeatedly got behind an overmatched and undermanned Oakland secondary in his breakout performance, reeling in six catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He was flanked by Hardman, who grabbed four passes for 61 yards and a score in his own breakout role—a stat line that doesn’t even include a 72-yard touchdown bomb that was called back due to offensive holding.

The Chiefs’ big-play offense under Patrick Mahomes is built, from front to back, to take the tops off of defenses. Mahomes looks intent on demolishing the idea of regression to the mean with Hill or without; at one point, the third-year signal-caller completed five straight passes of more than 27 yards and got all four of his second-quarter touchdown throws on passes of 20-plus yards—tied for most in a game since 2016. He’s pushing the ball downfield with a precision and efficiency that we’ve never really seen, and while Robinson’s and Hardman’s speed may not quite match that of Hill, it was more than enough to keep Oakland defenders on their heels and make them both must-adds on the waiver wire. That duo also adds to the growing list of early-season fantasy stars who’ve posted big numbers thanks to their elite field-stretching speed.

Take the Ravens’ high-octane offense under Lamar Jackson, which was impressive again in the team’s 23-17 win over the Cardinals on Sunday. Jackson, who combines electric speed as a runner (he gained 120 yards on 16 totes) with a refined proficiency as a passer (272 yards and two touchdowns), has looked like an MVP candidate in the first two weeks. He’s gotten plenty of help from rookie phenom Marquise Brown, who built on his impressive breakout performance last week by catching eight passes for 86 yards, including this 41-yard bomb on a crucial late-game third-and-11 that helped seal the win for Baltimore.

The Ravens offense is centered on a foundational, smashmouth run game, but has added a thrilling vertical passing game, led by Brown, that makes them damn near impossible to defend. The Bills, under dynamic dual-threat quarterback Josh Allen, are trying to do something similar: Allen is one of the most dangerous scramblers in the game (he rushed seven times for 21 yards and a touchdown on Sunday) but showed off improved deep-ball accuracy in Buffalo’s 28-14 win over the Giants, finishing 19-of-30 for 253 yards and one touchdown. He frequently targeted speed merchant John Brown, who finished with seven catches for 72 yards to build on his opening-week line of seven catches for 123 yards and a score.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have paired a proficient downfield passing game to go with their run-heavy philosophy, and rookie DK Metcalf has made a major impact in his two games as a pro. Following up his four-catch, 89-yard debut, Metcalf reeled in three passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in Seattle’s 28-26 win over the Steelers. His turbo-charged acceleration off the line of scrimmage more than trumps the lack of agility he has in the short area, and the Seahawks have integrated him into their scheme beautifully.

Oh, and keep an eye on Colts receiver Parris Campbell, who ran an impressive 4.31-second 40 at the combine in February and caught his first career touchdown in Indy’s 19-17 win over the Titans.

A handful of other breakout pass catchers this year may not have led their teams to victories over the first two weeks, but the game-changing speed each brings to the fore could be a crucial component to your winning fantasy squad this year. Jaguars receiver DJ Chark, who ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine, has emerged as one of the team’s top playmakers in the first two games. He caught seven of his team-high nine targets for 55 yards and a touchdown in Jacksonville’s 13-12 loss to the Texans, adding some credibility to his four-catch, 146-yard, one-touchdown performance in Week 1. Cincinnati’s John Ross (who ran a 4.22 to set the combine 40-yard dash record in 2017) did the same in the Bengals’ 41-17 loss to the 49ers, posting another four catches for 112 yards and one touchdown after a seven-catch, 158-yard, two-touchdown outing last week. And Washington’s Terry McLaurin, who ran a 4.35 at the combine this year, showed that his Week 1 breakout was no fluke, grabbing five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in the Redskins’ 31-21 loss to the Cowboys. Being fast isn’t the only thing when it comes to playing receiver in the NFL, of course, but there’s an obvious thread that connects a handful of the most exciting fantasy breakouts: hot, nasty, badass speed.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: QB Russell Wilson, Seahawks

Wilson posted one of the most efficient games of his career Sunday, and that’s saying something. The 30-year-old passer set a new career high in completion rate (82.9 percent), connecting on 29 of his 35 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Part of Wilson’s incredible performance can be credited to a midgame transformation in offensive strategy by Seattle; after a sluggish, ugly start during which Wilson was sacked four times in the first 23 minutes, the Seahawks switched to a quick-passing attack that spread the field and got the ball out of his hands quickly. From there, Wilson calmly picked the Steelers’ soft zone apart. He wasn’t sacked the rest of the game and finished with an average time to throw of just 1.89 seconds, the quickest by any quarterback since 2016 (minimum 20 attempts), per NFL Next Gen Stats. Wilson’s performance—and the Seahawks’ offensive style—conjured memories of the way he torched defenses in the second half of 2015, an incredible seven-game stretch when he tossed 24 touchdowns to just one pick and averaged 272 yards passing per contest.

Time will tell whether Seattle sticks with this strategy—Pete Carroll and Co. have long favored a slow, run-heavy, ultraconservative tack over the years. But if we witnessed a turning point for Seattle’s passing game on Sunday, it could mean big things for Wilson’s fantasy teams and could provide a big boost for Metcalf, Tyler Lockett (who set a career high with 10 catches for 79 yards), and tight end Will Dissly (five catches for 50 yards and two touchdowns).

Slider: RB Duke Johnson, Texans

Maybe Duke Johnson: Lead Back is just never going to happen. When Houston traded a conditional fourth-round pick to the Browns for Johnson, the expectation was that the Texans would make him a featured player in their offense—especially when Lamar Miller went down with an ACL tear in the preseason. But after an underwhelming Week 1 performance (nine rushes for 57 yards, four catches for 33 yards), Johnson posted a second straight fantasy dud, finishing with six carries for 31 yards and zero catches.

Riser: RB Carlos Hyde, Texans

Conversely, Hyde carried the ball 20 times for 90 yards and now has 173 rushing yards in two games. It’s hard to blame Houston for giving Hyde a much-bigger-than-anticipated role, either—he’s run with physicality and burst. If he can stay healthy, Hyde may end up being the more valuable fantasy asset in that backfield.

Riser: WR Christian Kirk, Cardinals

Kirk posted a disappointing four-catch, 32-yard line in the Cardinals’ opener last week, but it was clear that the second-year pro would be a focal point in the team’s passing game—he saw a team-high 12 targets in that tilt and finished with 139 air yards, 11th most among all players. This week, Kirk was far more efficient with his opportunities, grabbing six of his eight targets for 114 yards. The arrow points up for the 22-year-old pass catcher, who has established himself as one of Kyler Murray’s favorite targets.

Slider: K Adam Vinatieri, Colts

After missing a pair of field goals and an extra point last week, Vinatieri missed another two PAT attempts in the team’s narrow win over the Titans. The longtime veteran hinted after the game that he may retire. Even if he doesn’t, it’s time to stream another option at the position.

Riser: RB Aaron Jones, Packers

This is what an Aaron Jones stat line should look like every week: 116 yards and one touchdown on 23 totes with another four catches for 34 yards. The Packers finally gave their explosive running back a bell-cow role, and Jones took advantage. He far out-touched Jamaal Williams, who finished with nine carries for 28 yards, a sign that Jones may have finally secured the lead-back role.

Slider: WR Donte Moncrief, Steelers

Moncrief was looking to bounce back from a disastrous Week 1 performance in which he caught just three of his 10 targets for seven yards. He did not. The offseason free agent signee saw just one target, which bounced off his helmet and into the waiting hands of a Seahawks defender. Moncrief is in danger of losing his role as the de facto no. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh to James Washington and/or Diontae Johnson.

Riser: The Entire 49ers Backfield

With the caveat that a good chunk of the Niners’ ground-game production came in garbage time during the team’s 41-17 blowout of the Bengals, San Francisco’s new-look backfield sans Tevin Coleman (injured ankle) and Jerick McKinnon (who’s already on IR) will be just fine. Matt Breida ripped off 121 yards on 12 carries and backup Raheem Mostert added 83 yards on 13 totes plus three catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Just for good measure, Jeff Wilson, promoted from the practice squad this week, added 34 yards on 10 rushes and two touchdowns. In total, the team racked up 259 yards on 42 rushes, good for 6.2 yards per carry.

Slider: WR Dante Pettis, 49ers

Pettis spent most of the summer looking like the team’s no. 1 receiver before falling down the depth chart in training camp and the preseason. Through two games, he has one target and one catch. Pettis played 35 snaps this week, an improvement over last week’s two, but the second-year pro was not targeted. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has indicated that the plan is to get Pettis more involved going forward, but it’s getting harder and harder to rationalize keeping him on your roster.

Cutting up the Pie

Frank Gore Is Still the Lead Back for the Bills

As head coach Sean McDermott indicated would be the case last week, 36-year-old Gore remained the lead back in the Buffalo backfield. Gore rushed 19 times for 68 yards and a score in the team’s win, adding two catches for 15 yards. He played on 57 percent of the offense’s snaps and was spelled by rookie Devin Singletary, who ran the ball six times for 57 yards and a score on 34 percent of the team’s snaps. Singletary, who left the game with a hamstring injury, made the most of his opportunities, but until he gets more carries (and is more consistently featured in the passing game), he’ll be tough to trust week in and week out.

Keeping up With the Rams’ Running Back Rotation

Before the Saints-Rams tilt, ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported that the Rams’ plan was a 65 to 35 percent split between Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown. The team executed that plan almost to a T on Sunday, with Gurley playing 63 percent of the team’s snaps in the Rams’ 27-9 win. That marked the second-lowest single-game snap rate for Gurley since 2017, but the All-Pro salvaged it with a 16-carry, 63-yard, one-touchdown line (Brown added six carries for 37 yards). More concerning for Gurley’s fantasy squads, though, is that the normally prolific pass catcher gained just 4 yards on three catches. Much of Gurley’s fantasy value lies in his ability to pick up chunk yards and touchdowns through the air, and the Rams haven’t been able to get him involved in that part of the offense through two games.

Bears Put More on David Montgomery’s Plate

After giving Mike Davis a surprisingly major role in the Bears’ Week 1 loss to the Packers, head coach Matt Nagy relied more on his rookie running back on Sunday. Montgomery carried the ball 18 times for 62 yards and a score, adding one catch on three targets for 6 yards. Davis, meanwhile, carried the ball just three times, gaining 1 yard; Tarik Cohen added four carries for 18 yards; and Cordarrelle Patterson carried it twice for 50 yards. Things could change, but Montgomery’s trending toward a much bigger workload.

It’s a True Committee in Denver

All offseason indications pointed toward a true split between Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay in the Broncos backfield, and everything we’ve seen so far confirms those reports: Lindsay carried it 13 times for 36 yards and added four catches for 30 yards in the team’s loss to the Bears, while Freeman got 11 carries for 54 yards and five catches for 48 yards. In fact, Freeman, not Lindsay, was in the lineup for Denver when the team scored its late-game touchdown and go-ahead two-point conversion. For those hoping for an encore performance out of Lindsay in 2019, things aren’t looking good.

The Injury Report

QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Big Ben suffered a right elbow injury just before the half and didn’t return to the game. He was replaced by second-year backup Mason Rudolph. Early reports are that Roethlisberger will have an MRI on his elbow on Monday to determine the severity of the injury, and per’s Ian Rapoport, there’s “obvious concern” it could keep the team’s starter out for an extended time. While Rudolph looked sharp in relief, there are always fantasy implications with a change in quarterback; the overall ceiling for leading pass catcher JuJu Smith-Schuster could be diminished, and the team could look to protect its young quarterback with a bigger focus on the run game. Speaking of that …

RB James Conner, Steelers: Conner exited with a knee injury. Head coach Mike Tomlin shared few details on the severity of the injury so we’ll have to wait to find out whether it will cost the team’s lead back any time. If he does end up missing action, backup Jaylen Samuels will become a top waiver wire addition. Rookie fourth-round pick Benny Snell could get a bigger workload as well.

QB Drew Brees, Saints: Brees left the game in the first quarter after he hit his throwing hand on the hand of Aaron Donald, and the veteran passer didn’t return. He’s expected to miss six weeks after undergoing surgery on his thumb, and Teddy Bridgewater is the next man up. That is a big blow to the fantasy ceiling for receiver Michael Thomas.

RBs LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams, Chiefs: The Chiefs’ two top running backs left the team’s win over the Raiders, with Damien Williams suffering a knee contusion and McCoy going down with an ankle injury. If either misses time, it will make third-string rookie Darwin Thompson a must-add.

WR Michael Gallup, Cowboys: Gallup paced the Cowboys with eight targets Sunday, catching six passes for 68 yards. But he exited late in the fourth quarter and will reportedly require an MRI on his knee. If it’s anything serious, it would be a tough blow for a breakout player.

Smash the Add Button

Here’s a few must-add players on this week’s waiver wire.

WR Demarcus Robinson, Chiefs (rostered in 6 percent of Yahoo leagues): As laid out above, Robinson provides a field-stretching presence for Mahomes while Hill is on the sideline. The team will spread the ball among Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Hardman, so don’t expect the outburst of production we saw on Sunday every week, but he will play a big role in a Chiefs offense that scores a lot of points.

WR Mecole Hardman, Chiefs (40 percent): See Robinson, Demarcus. Hardman is the faster of the team’s new playmaking duo, so he may have a slightly higher ceiling, but he’s far more raw, giving him a lower floor.

RB Jaylen Samuels, Steelers (35 percent): If Conner misses any time, Samuels is in line for major volume. In the three games Samuels started last year, he rushed for 223 yards on 42 carries (5.3 YPC) and added 12 catches for 105 yards.

RB Raheem Mostert, 49ers (16 percent): The 49ers offense we saw on Sunday should have no trouble making both its running backs viable in fantasy. Mostert is Breida’s backup but looked great when given opportunities. Mostert scored a touchdown on a screen pass in the first quarter and had a second touchdown called back to penalty later in the game.

WR Deebo Samuel, 49ers (14 percent): Samuel finished with a team-high seven targets, catching five passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. He’s quickly becoming a weapon in the Niners offense and is already ahead of Pettis in the passing-game pecking order.

RB Frank Gore, Bills (8 percent): The ageless Gore is the lead back in Buffalo and with Singletary set to potentially miss time, could see even more action.

RB Darwin Thompson, Chiefs (18 percent): This would be a speculative add pending more news on Williams and McCoy, but the Chiefs offense is an extremely fantasy-friendly scheme for its running backs. Thompson was excellent in preseason action.

TE Will Dissly, Seahawks (3 percent): Dissly was a favorite target up the seam for Wilson on Sunday, and if the team looks to expand on the quick-passing attack we saw on Sunday, the big sophomore tight end could be a beneficiary.

The Watch List

Sometimes one big game isn’t quite enough. Here’s a handful of players to add to your waiver wire watch list. Be ready to pounce.

WR Parris Campbell, Colts (5 percent): Campbell turned his only target into a touchdown. The playmaker will have to earn a bigger piece of the pass-catching pie to be fantasy relevant, but he’s not lacking in speed or talent.

WR Devin Smith, Cowboys (0 percent): Raise your hand if you knew the 2015 second-rounder was still in the league. Smith caught three targets for 74 yards and a touchdown in the team’s victory on Sunday. If Gallup misses any time, he could see his role expand.

This piece was updated on September 16 with additional information after publication.