This week I’m going to take a look at a few fantasy players who had what I like to refer to as a “standout” performance. We’re not necessarily looking at which players had the overall best week – although I won’t stray from the subject if necessary – but players who had a good week despite going up against a tough defense, broke out of a slump, emerged as a sleeper or just plain overcame the odds. These guys deserve their due respect and who knows, we might even learn a thing or two.
Philip Rivers, QB
I could sit here and rant about how Peyton Manning is leading what is speculated to be the most incredible season in history, but then I would be regurgitating the same topic you’ll find on the front page of absolutely every sports circulation out there this week. That said, I’ll surely save you the trouble of dragging your tired fantasy obsessed eyes through another.
Yes, Manning was the outstanding QB story of the week, but he wasn’t the only one. Philip Rivers is beginning to look like the Philip Rivers that the San Diego Chargers decided to leave Drew Brees for. It’s about time too. Last season, Rivers barely topped 20 fantasy points twice during the season, and now with week 4 in the books he’s done it three times already and currently sits as the #3 QB in fantasy.
Rivers’ completed 35 of 42 passes for 401 yards, 3 TDs and 1 Int this week. San Diego’s “electric” signal caller is throwing everything but electricity downfield so far this season. His 1,199 yards, 11 TDs and 2 INTs have him on track for a 4,500 yard season with 44 TDs. While I don’t expect Rivers to go over 40 TDs this season, the QB is no stranger to 4,000+ yard seasons – he’s done that in four out of his last five. Did I mention he’s even setting records? Rivers set the single game record for completion percentage (83%) for a QB throwing for over 400 yards. He even reached a personal milestone with his 200th career TD (hauled in by Antonio Gates) in the team’s win over Dallas this weekend. This was a pretty big day for a guy who let down a lot of angry fantasy owners last season.
Bottom Line: So what does this mean for his fantasy value? Is Rivers back to QB1 status? The plain and simple answer is… well, there is no plain and simple answer. Week 3 showed us Rivers can still have off games in fantasy. Against the Titans, Rivers didn’t throw any interceptions, but he also didn’t throw many passes and only one TD. He didn’t make many mistakes but he didn’t ‘wow’ us either. So far he’s alternated having sub-200 yard games with 400+ yard games (the only thing that saved week 1 was the 4 scores he had through the air). He took the waiver wire by storm and has added great depth to the QB position in all formats. Even I traded for him to supplement Alex Smith in my 16-team league. However, I have some fantasy trust issues and I’m not going to drop Alex Smith after the bye week just because Rivers is on a hot streak. The old Philip Rivers could still be in there, so until I see this streak continue with some consistency, I view him as a low-end QB1 that is definitely start-worthy. If you can somehow buy low on him still, Rivers is definitely worth a spot on your roster because at this point it seems he could keep this spark of brilliance alive, especially next week when he faces division rival Oakland Raiders in their own house.
Victor Cruz, WR
Let’s face it, the New York Giants look like a Dane Cook punchline. Their running game is nonexistent, their defense is abysmal and I’m surprised Tom Coughlin’s poor ol’ heart hasn’t literally started attacking him yet. They’ve only scored three touchdowns in the past three weeks. I don’t even know what to say. This is the reason why I’ve decided to feature Victor Cruz here instead of Nate Washington. On an offense that just can’t seem to catch a break, Victor Cruz is most literally a diamond in the rough. Of course he is, he’s Victor Cruz, but even superstars like Larry Fitzgerald can’t get anything going on a dreary offense sometimes (see: 2012 Arizona Cardinals).
Cruz managed 10 catches on 16 targets for 164 yards and one score this week which gives him three 100+ yard outings through four weeks. Despite being on an offense that is barely a step above the Jags at this point, Cruz has racked up more yards than any other receiver with 425. One could say – and I will – that he is essentially the whole offense of the New York Giants. I’d like someone to name one other player they currently would start confidently on the Giants other than the salsa instructor himself. Hakeem Nicks has disappeared since week 1, David Wilson is a shell of what any of us thought he could be, and Eli Manning has cost countless fantasy owners their weekly match-ups so far.
Bottom Line: Cruz makes this list because he is leading the league amongst fantasy receivers despite being the only ‘must start’ on a team of ‘don’t starts’ and is on pace for the season of his life. Do I think Cruz can keep this up? I’ll take it one step further. I think he’ll be one of the elite options we look back on at the end of this season. I think he’ll finish in the top 5. I think you’ll be taking salsa lessons before the end of the year.
Tony Gonzalez, TE
Aside from the single TD he scored in week 1, Tony Gonzalez had not shown fantasy owners the side of him that almost tallied 1,000 yards and 8 TDs last year. However, this past week against the Patriots, the 37-year-old tight end reminded us that not only is he the most durable offensive weapon on the Falcons roster, but quite possibly the most dynamic. Gonzo controlled the air for Atlanta drawing 14 targets and bringing down a hefty 12. His 149 yards and 2 TDs were enough to propel him past Antonio Gates’ perfect 10 target/10 catch game as the #1 fantasy tight end this week.
What a lot of fantasy owners are wondering is whether or not the senior tight end can keep these numbers consistent moving forward. If Sunday vs New England is any indication, then Gonzalez has finally found his rhythm this season. He was all over the field making spectacular grabs in a desperate attempt to prevent the wily Patriots from going 4-0. While his attempts may have proven somewhat futile, for many fantasy owners it may have meant the difference between a W or holding your thumb and index finger up to your forehead.
Bottom Line: Tony Gonzalez is not afraid to remind us that this is his last season in the NFL. Had the Falcons won the Superbowl last year, I wouldn’t even be uttering his name here. Tony makes my list because not many 37-year-old receivers (or possibly any) can still make plays like this or even stay healthy for that matter. With Steven Jackson still out and defenses having figured out Roddy White is a decoy, it’s been hard for Gonzo to get going as one of the only passing targets to compliment Julio Jones – who seems to be getting banged up a bit himself. If Roddy and Jackson can get healthy and productive after the bye in week six, I predict more consistent stats from the future hall-of-famer when defenses have a full roster of offensive weapons to worry about again.
Danny Woodhead, RB
Danny Woodhead, you say? You mean that scrappy guy from the Patriots? Well, he’s at the opposite end of the country now playing with the aforementioned Philip Rivers and we can thank him for Woodhead’s success this week. Danny was one of my FLEX sleeper/handcuff predictions in the offseason from my very poorly updated personal blog (Not So ‘Fantasy’ Football) and this week he gave validity to my metaphorical crystal ball work.
On the ground, Woodhead doesn’t get many opportunities – averaging around 5 carries per game – but through the air he draws targets like a receiver – averaging almost 8 per game. It seems that four weeks is all it took for him to get on the same page as Philip Rivers because he accounted for 2 of Rivers’ 3 TD passes on 5 receptions for 54 yards. Add that in with his 5 carries for 32 yards and Woodhead put together the 5th best fantasy outing among RBs in week 4, producing 20 points for owners. Woodhead is a great change-of-pace back and proved that Tom Brady wasn’t the only reason he was able to put up impressive #s in a three-RB system.
Another great upside to the former Patriot is that if the fragile Ryan Matthews gets injured – who hasn’t played a full season in his three years as a pro – then Woodhead will definitely see more playing time. Furthermore, as long as Rivers keeps his passing attempts high – which happen to be his more successful games this year – Woodhead will keep seeing targets which is a PPR owner’s dream.
Bottom Line: Woodhead catches our eye this week as a standout player because it’s not too often you see a second or third-string RB as a top 5 performer and I can’t remember off the top of my head the last time a Chargers back was in that mix, period. Can Woodhead keep this up weekly? Probably not, but he will get you at least 6 points in standard leagues and has great upside in PPR leagues with the potential to average you 10 points as a solid FLEX player. If you need a good flyer this week for your FLEX, Woodhead is your man. It’s a long shot, but he could even evolve into a poor man’s Darren Sproles by the end of the season.
Adam Vinatieri, K
Speaking of aging football players (see: previously featured Tony Gonzalez, 37) Adam Vinatieri finally got on track this past week by posting his first game without a missed field goal this season. He really showed fantasy owners what he can do by hitting all 3 of his field goals and 4 XPs in a beatdown that made some of us wonder if the Jacksoncille Jaguars owed the Indianapolis Colts money.
Bottom Line: This is the first week the 40-year-old kicker was able to sink double-digit points into your lineups and it was about time. Nine other kickers also shared this same quality in week 4 but Vinatieri stands out because of his age, legacy and first perfect performance of the year.
Denver Broncos, D/ST
What can’t the Denver Broncos do? Sure, they might be giving up a little over 20 points per game but save for a meager week 3, they’ve been making enough plays to give fantasy owners a reason to keep them on their roster. A major factor to this success is their special teams which enjoyed two returns for TDs against the Eagles in Mile-High. Through four weeks, the Broncos have had three returns for a TD while no other team (only 4 for that matter) has more than one. Throw in their 3 sacks and the Broncos DST got you well over 10 fantasy points despite allowing Philadelphia to score 20 points.
Bottom Line: The Denver Broncos DST face a lot of disadvantages week to week. One of the main ones being the absence of defensive play-maker Von Miller and veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. Many thought this would cripple their defensive production but between the fast paced offense granting the Broncos D many opportunities to make plays on the field and the attacking 4-3 strategy of Jack Del Rio, they seem to have found a way to produce enough turnovers and scores to make some fairly decent weeks so far. That fast paced offense is a double-edged sword, however. Defensive lineman Kevin Wolfe told media after the game that he had never been so exhausted in his life during their win over the Eagles. The fact that they spend so much time on the field is a direct correlation to the amount of points they give up as well as their opportunities to force turnovers. This is exactly why they made the list for week 4. Denver is a safe week to week option but for very different reasons than shutdown defenses like Kansas City and Seattle.
Hot Streak: Wes Welker, WR
In 2012, Wes Welker caught 6 TD passes from the bad man himself, Tom Brady. Now through only four weeks, Welker has already matched his TD total from last year. We thought Peyton Manning was off to a legendary start? Let’s not forget about his receivers. Someone’s got to catch his 16 TDs after all and Wes Welker has over 1/3 of them already. He’s not on track to break any yardage records but Welker can surely get close to 100 receptions this year. What’s even more incredible is that he’s on track to haul in 24 TDs at this rate. That’s not likely but if his streak doesn’t die we could be looking at a potential 15+ TD season for the agile slot receiver because it’s not looking like Peyton is going to slow down anytime soon and historically he only gets better toward the second half of the season. Welker is absolutely on fire despite the thin air in the Mile-High City.
Sleeper to Watch: Jerome Simpson, WR
If it’s one thing Matt Cassel proved to us, it’s that he is inescapably more successful as a backup QB than he is as a starting QB. Lucky for Jerome Simpson, Cassel was signed by the Vikings in the offseason to back up the floundering Christian Ponder. Over the weekend, Cassel completed 16 of 25 for 248 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. Greg Jennings may have been lucky enough to snag both of those scores but Simpson easily proved himself to be Cassel’s go-to guy by attracting 11 targets to Jennings’ 4. He also led the team in receptions and yards by snagging 7 of those targets for 124 yards. Simpson has shown flashes of this kind of brilliance before but has never been able to keep it consistent. His early rapport with Matt Cassel could prove to be a great opportunity for the athletic pass-catcher. If you’ve got a spot on your bench to spare, take a flier on Simpson; he’s a sleeper with the potential to wake up doing front flips into the endzone again now that there’s a QB change in Minnesota.
For more insight and analysis from Ryley Henry, follow him on Twitter: @ryleyhenryff