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Fantasy Playbook: Decoding a Wild, Bizarre Week in Fantasy Football

Marcus Mariota carved up the Falcons, Nick Chubb broke out … and Patrick Mahomes failed to throw a touchdown. Which results from Week 4 are here to stay, and which can be safely ignored?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are some weeks in fantasy football when just about everything goes as expected, and then there are weeks like this one. Whether it was embattled Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota’s shockingly crisp three-touchdown day, Odell Beckham Jr.’s disappearing act in the Browns’ 40-point offensive explosion, the zero-touchdown fantasy dud from Patrick Mahomes in his much-anticipated dome debut, or Jared Goff and Jameis Winston’s Freaky Friday–like playing-style switch, it was a bizarre week in the fantasy world from start to finish. The question, of course, is whether the weird happenings were just a bunch of one-off flukes or a glimpse at trends that are here to stay. Let’s break down a few of the headliners.

Mariota’s sterling performance should quiet Titans’ fans calls to move to backup Ryan Tannehill … at least for a week or two. Mariota completed 18 of 27 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns in the 24-10 win over the Falcons, adding 22 yards on three rushes to guarantee himself a QB1 finish this week with 23.2 fantasy points. After taking a career-high nine sacks in Week 3, Mariota took zero on Sunday, benefiting from quicker-paced passing designs and plenty of play-action that allowed him to spread the ball around to his playmakers. It was very encouraging to see him confidently and aggressively pushing the ball downfield to receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis: On a first-quarter touchdown throw to Brown, he threw a perfectly placed dime on a fade route in the end zone; on his second-quarter touchdown throw to Davis, he showed top-tier anticipation and pinpoint accuracy.

Mariota has a long way to go to earn a big second contract with the Titans (or become a reliable fantasy starter), but what we saw on Sunday should act as the blueprint for how the team can unlock its underperforming passing attack. While Titans receivers came into this week with the third-fewest receptions, eighth-fewest yards, and zero touchdowns, it was clear Sunday that Brown (three catches, 94 yards, two touchdowns) and Davis (five catches, 91 yards, one touchdown) have the potential to become big-time playmakers—as long as first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith continues to prioritize ways to get that duo involved early and often. Smith must also continue to find a good balance between the team’s quick-release passing scheme, which helps protect Mariota in the pocket, and its deep-drop play-action game—which is Mariota’s bread and butter. I’m not quite ready to buy in to the Titans’ breakout against a bad Falcons defense this week, and both Brown and Davis remain boom-or-bust flex options. At the very least, though, Tennessee appeared to have a cogent plan and a tangible identity. That gives me some hope for the rest of the season.

I am buying the Browns’ 530-yard offensive breakout. Baker Mayfield got a much-needed confidence boost in the team’s 40-25 blowout of the Ravens, completing 20 of 30 passes for 342 yards, one touchdown, and one interception while taking just one sack. Cleveland’s run game exploded behind Nick Chubb, who rushed 20 times for 165 yards and three touchdowns, while Jarvis Landry put his name back on the fantasy map with an eight-catch, 167-yard, career-high performance before leaving the game in the third quarter with a concussion. And although Beckham was conspicuously quiet in this one, recording just two catches for 20 yards, the crucial bounce-back performance for the Cleveland offense should pay fantasy dividends for Beckham going forward. Head coach Freddie Kitchens finally got his team to play with the tempo, rhythm, and—most importantly—creativity we saw from the Browns down the stretch last year. That was evident in the second quarter, when Beckham came close to completing a big downfield bomb on a double reverse, but the ball went through Damion Ratley’s hands. The sack-happy, penalty-plagued Browns played clean football for the first time this year and seemed to get their mojo back in a statement divisional win. Beckham’s breakthrough is coming.

I don’t put much stock into Mahomes’s rare goose egg in the touchdown column in the Chiefs’ 34-30 win over the Lions. The third-year pro, who came into the week carrying a 14-game streak with at least two passing scores, posted a surprisingly average fantasy outing, a foreign concept for a quarterback who entered the game on pace to throw 53 touchdown passes and to smash the NFL’s passing yard record. Mahomes did everything he needed to do to help his team win, though, passing for 315 yards and rushing for 54 more, and orchestrating the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Just continue to set and forget him.

That brings us to the Buccaneers’ wild 55-40 win over the Rams, a high-scoring, fantasy-friendly affair in which the two teams’ quarterbacks posted contrasting performances:

The typically wild Winston did throw a fourth-quarter pick-six, but otherwise put together a clean game on the road against a tough Rams defense, completing 28 of 41 attempts for 385 yards and four touchdowns. On the other side, Goff had a truly Winston-esque game, throwing for a career-high 517 yards on an absurd 68 pass attempts (tied for the third most ever in an NFL game) while turning it over four times, including three interceptions and a back-breaking fumble that led to a game-clinching Buccaneers touchdown with under a minute to go.

It’s tough to look at that performance as anything but a promising step forward for Bruce Arians’s still-developing squad: Winston posted a second straight three-plus-touchdown performance for the first time in his career; Chris Godwin (12 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns) and Mike Evans (four catches, 89 yards, one touchdown) continued to make the case that they’re the league’s most dangerous one-two punch at receiver; and the team’s run game, led by Ronald Jones (19 rushes, 70 yards, and a score) got its feet under it.

On the other hand, the Rams’ 518-yard output doesn’t really tell the whole story. L.A.’s once-dominant, foundational run game again struggled, mustering just 28 yards on 11 totes. That forced the team to look to Goff to carry the load, and the results were decidedly mixed: The fourth-year quarterback salvaged his four-turnover day by posting a monster 517 passing yards, most of which came as he tried to rally the Rams back from a big early deficit. But Goff’s poor decision-making and penchant for fumbling (he’s racked up 14 fumbles in his past 13 games) is a major concern for a Rams offense that hasn’t looked like itself this year. L.A. was a juggernaut last year because of its incredible efficiency and consistency in both the run game and the passing attack. This team is still capable of huge fantasy outputs, but it’s anything but the well-oiled machine we saw in 2018. It’s tough to know what to expect next week when L.A. travels to Seattle for Thursday Night Football.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: RB David Johnson, Cardinals

Johnson looked a bit like the guy we saw back in 2016 in the Cardinals’ 27-10 loss to the Seahawks, lining up all over the formation to make an impact on the ground and through the air. The versatile back carried 11 times for 40 yards while grabbing eight of 11 targets for 99 yards, frequently reaching up to pull down off-target passes or breaking through arm-tackle attempts in the open field. Johnson’s 21.9 PPR points ranks eighth among running backs this week (pending Monday Night Football). The Cardinals seem to be figuring out more ways to get their dynamic playmaker involved.

Slider: QB Case Keenum, Redskins

Keenum came into the week as the sneaky QB11 on the year. But after tossing up a pick and badly missing receivers downfield on a number of throws, head coach Jay Gruden pulled the plug on the veteran journeyman, turning to rookie first-rounder Dwayne Haskins. Haskins didn’t play well, tossing three picks on just 17 attempts, but assuming the team sticks with the former Ohio State star, Keenum’s days as a quarterback streamer are done.

Riser: TE Austin Hooper, Falcons

Hooper is quietly putting together another solid year for the inconsistent Falcons. He came into the week as the PPR TE6—exactly where he finished in 2018—and is bound to rise in the ranks after posting a nine-catch, 130-yard performance. He’s establishing himself as a top-tier fantasy tight end.

Slider: QB Josh Allen, Bills

Allen was the QB7 over the past two weeks, averaging 20.8 points per game, but reverted back to the turnover machine we saw in Week 1 against the Patriots. The second-year pro completed just 13 of 28 passes for 153 yards while tossing three ugly picks before leaving in the fourth quarter with a concussion. He was 0-for-8 on passes of 20-plus yards downfield.

Riser: WR DeVante Parker, Dolphins

Parker came into the week with one of the strangest statistical quirks in the sport: He’d caught just six passes for 131 yards through three games, yet ranked fourth among all players in air yards (433), behind only Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, and Marquise Brown. He remains an extreme boom-or-bust option going forward, but the Dolphins pass catcher finally made good on all those opportunities downfield on Sunday, reeling in four passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.

Slider: WR Marquise Brown, Ravens

Brown looked like a solid play against an extremely banged-up Browns secondary, but the rookie failed to secure an end zone target late in the game and finished with just four catches for 22 yards. He remains a focal point in the Baltimore passing offense, but has cooled off over the past two weeks after posting 12 catches for 233 yards and two scores in his first two games.

Riser: TE Will Dissly, Seahawks

Dissly’s meteoric rise up the fantasy tight end ranks continued on Sunday when the second-year pro reeled in seven catches on a team-high eight targets for 57 yards and a score—his fourth on the year. At 23 years old, Dissly became the youngest tight end to score four-plus receiving touchdowns in the first four games of a season since Rob Gronkowski did it in 2011. The University of Washington product has a strong connection with Russell Wilson, particularly in the red zone. He looks capable of finishing as a top-5 fantasy tight end.

Slider: QB Kyle Allen, Panthers

After tossing four touchdowns in relief of Cam Newton last week, Allen fell back to earth against the tough Texans defense in the team’s 16-10 win, completing 24 of 34 passes for 232 yards, no touchdowns, and no picks. A drop in efficiency should’ve been expected, but if this performance is closer to what the Panthers are going to get out of the second-year backup week in and week out, it significantly lowers the overall fantasy ceilings for Curtis Samuel (three catches, 32 yards), D.J. Moore (three catches, 44 yards), and Greg Olsen (two catches, 5 yards).

Riser: RB Wayne Gallman, Giants

Gallman filled in admirably for an injured Saquon Barkley, slashing and dashing through the Redskins defense to the tune of 63 yards and a touchdown on the ground while adding six catches for 55 yards and a score through the air. He’s no Barkley, but he’ll have the volume to be a startable option at running back until Barkley gets back.

Riser: WR Courtland Sutton, Broncos

Sutton has quietly broken out for the winless Broncos this season, and posted a six-catch, 62-yard, two-touchdown line in a 26-24 loss to the Jaguars. His second touchdown, a nice grab on a goal-line slant with 1:38 to go, showed how much Joe Flacco—and the team—trusts the second-year pro. That score would’ve been the game-winner if not for a plucky Jags offense, who marched back downfield to kick the game-winning field goal. Sutton has at least seven targets in each game this year and has shown a growing chemistry with Flacco.

Cutting Up the Pie

Seahawks Show Trust in Chris Carson

After watching Carson fumble three times in the Seahawks’ first three games, no one would’ve blamed head coach Pete Carroll if the team benched the third-year pro in favor of a more reliable option. But Carroll, who spent the week telling anyone who would listen how much he trusts Carson, held true to his word: Carson dominated touches for Seattle, rushing 22 times for 104 yards while adding four catches for 41 yards. The bruising back bowled through tackle attempts on multiple occasions and made sure to keep two hands on the ball when running through traffic. He remains the team’s go-to back, and should for the foreseeable future, even when Rashaad Penny likely returns from a hamstring injury next week.

Patriots Turn Back to Sony Michel

There was some speculation this week that with fullback James Develin heading to the injured reserve with a neck injury, the Patriots would lean much harder on versatile passing-game specialists in Rex Burkhead and James White going forward. That could still end up being true—Burkhead was on the injury report all week, which likely diminished his role in the team’s game plan—but New England leaned heavily on Michel in its 16-10 win over the Bills, with the second-year back carrying the ball 17 times (85 percent of the team’s carries) for 63 yards. Until there’s more clarity in the Patriots backfield rotation (that may never happen), though, Michel remains a risky play week to week.

It’s Kerryon Johnson’s Backfield in Detroit

Johnson got the lion’s share of the uh, Lions’ backfield workload again on Sunday, carrying 26 times (78 percent of running back totes) for 125 yards while adding two catches for 32 yards. He did lose a fumble on the goal line, but the team kept feeding the sophomore runner all game. He’s the unquestioned bellcow.

The Injury Report

QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bears: Trubisky injured his left shoulder in the first quarter of the Bears’ 16-6 win over the Vikings. He was replaced by veteran backup Chase Daniel, who played admirably in relief, completing 22 of 30 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. Should Trubisky miss significant time, I don’t expect it to necessarily hurt the team’s fantasy-relevant skill players. Daniel’s an experienced backup who can serve as the point guard in Matt Nagy’s scheme.

QB Josh Allen, Bills: Allen suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter against the Patriots and didn’t return. Matt Barkley replaced him, completing nine of 16 passes for 127 yards and a pick. If the strong-armed, vertical-oriented Allen can’t return for next week’s matchup against the Titans, it will hurt receiver John Brown and boost underneath options like Cole Beasley.

WR Christian Kirk, Cardinals: Kirk went down with what looked to be a serious ankle injury in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks and didn’t return to the game. If Kirk is forced to miss significant time, Kyler Murray is likely to lean even more heavily on veteran Larry Fitzgerald. The team may get rookie Andy Isabella (who projects primarily as a slot player) more involved as well.

WR Kenny Stills, Texans: Stills left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. If he can’t return for next week’s game, second-year receiver Keke Coutee should get the opportunity to step into a bigger role.

TE T.J. Hockenson, Lions: Hockenson left Sunday’s game against the Chiefs after a scary play in which he tried to hurdle a defender. He was diagnosed with a concussion and didn’t return. Veterans Jesse James and Logan Thomas could see increased roles in the passing game if Hockenson misses significant time.

WR Jarvis Landry, Browns: Landry left the Browns-Ravens game in the third quarter with a concussion. If Landry isn’t able to play next week, Rashard Higgins has the versatility to step into a bigger role out of the slot—if he can return from a knee injury. Cleveland wideouts Damion Ratley and Taywan Taylor are candidates to see more targets, too.

RB Marlon Mack, Colts: Mack tweaked his ankle and carried the ball only twice in the second half of a 31-24 loss to the Raiders. He said that was a coach’s decision and that he’ll be ready for next week.

Smash the Add Button

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

WR Golden Tate, Giants (rostered in 49 percent of Yahoo leagues)

Tate returns from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances next week, and should immediately become the Giants’ de facto 1B receiver to Sterling Shephard’s 1A. Tate is still one of the most dangerous run-after-the-catch creators in the NFL, catching 74 passes for 795 yards and four touchdowns with the Lions and Eagles last year and surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in three out of the four seasons prior to that.

RB Ronald Jones, Buccaneers (43 percent)

Jones has been impressive over the Bucs’ past two games and seems to be running away with the starting job. He carried 19 times for 70 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Rams.

WRs Corey Davis (47 percent) or A.J. Brown (10 percent), Titans

I wouldn’t start either of these guys in a tough matchup against the Bills next week, but both are worth speculative adds in case Mariota’s performance Sunday was the real deal.

WR Keke Coutee, Texans (18 percent)

Coutee was heavily involved in the six games he appeared in for the Texans last season, tallying 41 targets, 287 yards, and one touchdown. He’s played more of a rotational role this season with the team’s addition of Kenny Stills, but could see his opportunities skyrocket if Stills misses extended time with a hamstring injury.

TE Chris Herndon, Jets (16 percent)

Herndon isn’t eligible to return from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy and program on substances of abuse, after he pleaded guilty to DWI, until after Week 5. But now is the time to add him in fantasy. As a rookie, the tight end caught 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns.

TE Dawson Knox, Bills (14 percent)

Knox followed up on an impressive three-catch, 67-yard, one-touchdown line last week with three catches for 58 yards against the Pats. One of his catches was an impressive diving grab near the sideline that gained 21 yards. He’s an ascending player in the Buffalo offense who’s worth adding for fantasy teams in need of tight end help.

The Watch List

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

WR Javon Wims, Bears (zero percent)

With Taylor Gabriel out with a concussion Sunday, Wims got the start at receiver for the Bears. He impressed, catching four passes for 56 yards. The second-year pro has an intriguing skill set and plenty of size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. There’s a chance he goes back to the bench when Gabriel returns, but he may have earned a bigger role with the way he’s played in limited action.

TE Ricky Seals-Jones, Browns (1 percent)

Last week, Demetrius Harris stepped up in place of the injured David Njoku, playing significant snaps and catching a 2-yard touchdown. This week, the Browns turned to Seals-Jones, who caught three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. The 24-year-old is an outstanding athlete who could earn a bigger role going forward.