Big expectations for Brandon Aiyuk

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Over the years, we’ve seen a number of fantasy football strategies come and go with varying results.

If you embrace the handcuff strategy, rostering the backup to your top pick (most common at running back), you’ve likely been rewarded this year. While the tactic is divisive — do you really want to take up valuable bench space for a player who might only see the field one or two games? — injury-proofing your roster with a startable player has probably paid off considering we can label 2021 as The Year of the Backup.

While COVID certainly has played a part in star players’ absences, the 2021 season has been a minefield of injuries — Week 12 alone saw Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and D’Andre Swift all suffer injuries.

Chances are, if you had a top-four fantasy draft pick this season, that player has missed time. McCaffrey sat out five games and parts of two others and is now done for the year. Cook has already missed two games and is expected to be out at least two more. Derrick Henry was dominating before a Week 8 foot injury knocked him out long-term, and Alvin Kamara has now missed four straight games with a knee injury.

Our weekly picks have been made with 0.5 PPR leagues in mind, with standard rosters of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, and one RB/WR/TE FLEX spot.

QUARTERBACKS

QB Start: Kirk Cousins, Vikings (@ Lions)
Here’s a fun stat: in six road games this year, Cousins has thrown for 1,687 yards, 14 touchdown passes, and just one interception. He is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks on the road and now gets a Lions defence that gives up a generous 8.4 yards per pass attempt. With Dalvin Cook out for a few weeks, the passing game should carry more of the load and Captain Kirk should be able to deliver against one of the worst defences in the NFL.

QB Start: Justin Herbert, Chargers (@ Bengals)
It’s easy to forget that Herbert is just in his second full season in the NFL and still growing as a player. While he made some mistakes last Sunday against Denver, he’s still now thrown for over 300 yards and at least two touchdowns in three of his last four games. He now faces a Bengals defence that ranks 25th in passing yardage allowed so far in 2021.

Another QB starter to consider: Jalen Hurts, Eagles (@ Jets)

QB Sit: Matt Ryan, Falcons (vs. Buccaneers)
I think it’s safe to say Ryan might have the worst offensive line in the NFL (though, Miami’s OL might give them a run). Ryan has been under siege every snap, and for a 36-year old, largely-immobile quarterback, that usually doesn’t work out. He has scored 18.0 fantasy points combined over the last three weeks, and although it’s true that the Buccaneers’ defensive unit allows a fair amount of passing yards, it would be tough to trust him for anything more than QB2 numbers as long as the Falcons’ game plan is ‘hand the ball off to Cordarrelle Patterson.’

QB Sit: All Rookie QBs (Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson)
It was tough to pick just one rookie quarterback in Week 13 because the truth is, they all have pretty terrible matchups. Jones is taking on a Bills defence that allows the fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks; Lawrence is having major issues moving the ball on an offence void of playmakers; Wilson is only starting because Joe Flacco and Mike White have been entangled in COVID protocols; and an injury will sideline Fields Sunday afternoon.

Even if you feel there’s upside somewhere in here, do yourself a favour and stay away for Week 13.

WIDE RECEIVERS

WR Start: Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers (@ Seahawks)
Better late than never, right? (That is, if you hadn’t dropped him already.) If you did manage to hold onto Aiyuk, then kudos to you — he has now scored double-digit points in three of the last four weeks and his playing time is back up to where it was entering the season. With Deebo Samuel expected to miss one to two weeks with a groin injury, you can slot Aiyuk in and get back reasonable production versus a reeling Seahawks team.

WR Start: Hunter Renfrow, Raiders (vs. WFT)
I know you’re probably sick of seeing Renfrow’s name in this column – I dare say, he may be the most-referenced wideout of the year so far!

When tight end Darren Waller went down with a knee injury on Thanksgiving, Renfrow saw increased action, grabbing eight of nine targets for 134 yards. I think it’s safe to say he should be an every-week starter at this point, so chances are this is the last time you’ll read his name here.

Another WR starter to consider: Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins (vs. Giants)

WR Sit: Cole Beasley, Bills (vs. Patriots)
As with most offences, there’s an ebb and flow to things – and unfortunately for Beasley, Dawson Knox’s return bring an ebb. Beasley hasn’t topped 50 yards in four straight games and now gets a Patriots defence that allows the fourth-fewest fantasy points to wide receivers. There are better options in Week 13, so avoid having to grind your teeth all the way through Monday night and leave him on the bench.

WR Sit: Kendrick Bourne, Patriots (@ Bills)
It’s been a nice few games for Bourne against lesser competition: he’s scored three touchdowns over the last three weeks, including two last week against the Titans. Despite getting pretty regular work, he now faces off against the Bills, who do very well in limiting opposing wide receivers (fewest fantasy points allowed). Even in a post-Tre’Davious White world, you might want to stay away from Bourne this week just in case.

RUNNING BACKS

RB Start: Jamaal Williams, Lions (vs. Vikings)
D’Andre Swift will miss Sunday’s matchup against the Vikings after suffering a shoulder sprain last week that limited him to just nine total snaps. This makes Williams one of the week’s best plays as a volume-based RB2 after Lions head coach Dan Campbell said he would ‘carry the load’ versus Minnesota. The Vikings allow 4.8 yards per carry and just got smoked by Eli Mitchell, so it’s a smash start for Williams this weekend.

RB Start: Alexander Mattison, Vikings (@ Lions)
Another injury-based start, Mattison has proven himself to be one of the more reliable backups in the NFL over the last few seasons. In each of the two games that Cook has missed this year, Mattison has touched the ball 36 times, which would by itself make him a terrific start. But he also gets a Lions defence that allows the third-most fantasy points to running backs. Even if Cousins throws the ball more, the chance of Mattison getting dump-offs is higher as well – start Mattison with confidence.

Another RB starter to consider: Miles Sanders, Eagles (@ Jets)

RB Sit: Saquon Barkley, Giants (@ Dolphins)
I very well may be jinxing us all with this recommendation, but truthfully it’s been tough sledding for Barkley all season. New Giants offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens didn’t exactly open up the playbook last week, but even so, Barkley still only managed 40 yards on the ground – 32 of which came on a single play. He did see five targets, so perhaps that buoys his value, but until we see more from this Daniel Jones-less offence, steer clear – especially against a Dolphins unit allowing the sixth-fewest fantasy points to running backs.

RB Sit: Zack Moss/Devin Singletary, Bills (vs. Patriots)
I know we just saw D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard both individually top 100 yards versus the Patriots last week, but the Titans were forced to run the ball as much as humanly possible with virtually all of their passing options on the shelf. The Bills won’t have to lean on their running game as much because Josh Allen can throw the ball extremely well, and because he can move it with his legs too. If you start either RB, you’re essentially hoping for a few red zone/goal-line touches where one of them bangs it in. With all the injuries and byes around the league, you may be forced to start one (or gulp — both), but temper expectations for Monday night.

TIGHT ENDS

TE Start: Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers (@ Falcons)
It’s crazy to think that even on an offence that runs out Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette on a week-to-week basis, Gronkowski has managed to gobble up a 23.3 per cent target share since his return a few weeks ago. He looks healthy, motivated, and is used enough on every part of the field to make him a matchup-proof tight end going forward. It’ll be a short stay for Gronk in this column, as he should be an every-week starter through to the end of the playoffs.

TE Start: Pat Freiermuth, Steelers (vs. Ravens)
We should have seen this coming, honestly. Once the references to a young Heath Miller started rolling in, we should have just picked him up and stashed him since we know all about the Ben Roethlisberger-to-Miller connection of yesteryear. In all seriousness, Freiermuth has been phenomenal, visiting the end zone in four of the last five games. He consistently grabs at least six targets per game and now gets the Ravens — a team that gives up the fourth-most fantasy points to tight ends. At 62 per cent owned in Yahoo! leagues, there’s a chance he may even be available on waivers. If that’s the case, run – don’t walk! – to pick him up now.

Another TE starter to consider: Foster Moreau, Raiders (vs. WFT)

TE Sit: Gerald Everett, Seahawks (vs. 49ers)
If you’d have told me prior to last week that Everett would outproduce D.K. Metcalf in Week 12 by almost ten points, I probably would have laughed out loud… and yet, here we are. But even with 21 targets over the last three weeks, I still don’t feel good about starting Everett on any given Sunday because of how lethargic Seattle’s offence has been. If he performs again against a competent 49ers defence (fifth-fewest fantasy points allowed to tight ends), then we can revisit this one when Seattle takes on Houston in Week 14.

TE Sit: T.J. Hockenson, Lions (vs. Vikings)
Saving perhaps the riskiest sit proposition for last… Hockenson actually did find the end zone for the first time since Week 2 (!) last week against the Bears. Still, he only saw three targets — the second time in the last three games that’s happened. He now takes on the Vikings, a team that not only gives up the fourth-fewest fantasy points to tight ends, but one that already limited him to just two catches for 22 yards back in Week 5. Given the sheer volatility at the position, this might be a good week to stream tight ends if you’re a Hockenson owner.

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