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Nickel Coverage: Five fantasy questions that need answers before Week 14

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston were the top picks in the 2015 draft and are on the radar as fantasy playoffs kick off this week. Getty Images

It's Week 14, which means the playoffs have arrived in most leagues. That means every roster decision you make this weekend carries extra weight, because you either win or go home.

Should you use a rookie such as Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota or Todd Gurley? How about tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who just returned from a shoulder injury, or Dez Bryant, who will be playing without Tony Romo? What should you expect from the Kansas City Chiefs' backfield?

Don't worry, we have the answers for all of those questions right here.

Each week throughout the season, I will pose five of the week's most intriguing fantasy questions to a rotating panel of experts from ESPN, ESPN Fantasy and NFL Nation. Five questions for five analysts, thus Nickel Coverage.

Responses this week come from ESPN New York's Anita Marks, NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein, NFL Nation Dolphins reporter James Walker, Tim Hasselbeck from Fantasy Football Now and NFL Live, and ESPN NFL analyst Jim McCormick.


Jameis Winston has scored at least a dozen fantasy points in every game this season and faces the lowly Saints defense on Sunday. Marcus Mariota has two 30-point games in his past five outings and plays against the New York Jets on Sunday. Do you see either (or both) rookie as a QB1 in 10- or 12-team leagues in Week 14?

Most of our analysts think Winston is a viable starter this week, but would fade Mariota as a QB1.

Hasselbeck: Mariota's recent performances have been impressive, but they're also a product of the opponent. The Jets won't be as friendly to the young quarterback. You might be able to find 20 better options. Winston, however, would be a starter for me in 12-team leagues for sure. The Saints have been far and away the worst fantasy defense this year. They have allowed 35 passing touchdowns and have only six interceptions; plus, they are on pace to shatter the record for most passing touchdowns allowed.

McCormick: The Saints have allowed 19.8 percent more fantasy points per game to opposing signal-callers than any other defense in football. The Jets rank fourth in the NFL with a pressure rating (percentage of opponent dropbacks producing pressure, i.e., a sack or duress) of 29.7 percent, while the Titans have allowed a generous 29.1 percent pressure rate to opposing pass-rushes, per ESPN Stats & Info research. Given such inviting matchup metrics for Tampa's offense, Winston is in the top 10 at the position for me, while I'm fading Mariota versus a capable host.

Walker: If you have either player as your QB1, your team probably isn't playoff-bound. Mariota and Winston are playing well as of late, but they are still fairly average in fantasy when you look at the entire body of work this season. That is what's important when you look at quarterbacks. That's a position where you consistently need 25-30 points to be a top team in your league, and these two rookies have provided only flashes. There is a big gap between Winston and Mariota and true QB1s such as Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins played Sunday for the first time since Week 2. He managed only three catches for 31 yards, but he went off for 23 fantasy points in Week 1 and faces a Saints defense that has allowed the most fantasy points to tight ends this season. Would you stream him into starting lineups in Week 14?

Three of our analysts see "ASJ" as a viable streaming TE1 in Week 14.

Hasselbeck: Streaming ASJ in Week 14 certainly comes with some risk. His snaps last week were very limited (he played roughly 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps), and he was able to muster only three catches for 31 yards. I believe that changes this week. The Bucs were slow to bring him back from the shoulder injury, but I think his snap total gets a major boost this week, creating more opportunities for the talented tight end. His quarterback is playing well, and the matchup couldn't be better. If you are a Rob Gronkowski owner who got shut out of the Scott Chandler sweepstakes, go get ASJ.

Rothstein: As a Seferian-Jenkins owner in one of my leagues, I feel your pain here. His absence was part of the reason I missed the playoffs in my 16-team league. But he's back, and in an advantageous situation this week. I'd steer clear had he not played last week, but he absorbed the contact in an NFL game. Roll with him this week as a TE2 with scoring capability. Keep in mind, though, the numbers are a little skewed when it comes to scoring. New Orleans has allowed 10 touchdowns to tight ends, but five of them came in two games.

Walker: No, no, no! It is too late in the season for reaches. For most fantasy leagues, there are either one or two games left in the regular season or they're into the playoffs. Owners with big games coming up should not waste their time with such a big question mark such as Seferian-Jenkins. Minus Gronkowski and Greg Olsen, tight end has been a tough position to figure out this year in fantasy. Jimmy Graham never really found his footing in Seattle, and others such as Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker have been hot and cold. If you have a tight end such as Kelce, Walker or Gary Barnidge, just stick with what you have.

The Kansas City Chiefs have been splitting carries between Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, but they face a San Diego Chargers defense that has been awful at stopping running backs. Would you recommend starting both players this week?

Our contributors are more skeptical about Ware's upside than West's, though neither rates better than an RB2 for Week 14.

Hasselbeck: I see Ware as a low-end RB2 and West as a high-end RB2. The Chiefs are good at running the football and have proved they can do it with a variety of backs. The Chargers have struggled mightily defending the run, making both West and Ware very playable in Week 14. The Chargers have allowed 15 runs of more than 20 yards this year, which is the most in the NFL and a great indicator of a team's ability to stop the run ... or in this case, an inability to do so.

Marks: No ... not both. West is still the lead back and is expected to get the majority of touches for the Chiefs. West played 34 snaps last week and Ware played 17, but Ware was utilized more in the red zone. Unfortunately, this has turned into a committee backfield, but considering the Chargers have the league's worst run defense, Charcandrick is a solid flex play in Week 14.

Walker: Kansas City's offense is hot, which I like. But I still don't have a firm read on its situation at running back. Therefore, I would stay away. Many teams use two running backs, but there is still a sense of division between the No. 1 and No. 2 tailback. In Kansas City, it appears whoever gets hot early will have the most attempts, which is dangerous for a fantasy owner. Again, it's too late in the year to play the guessing game. I would start running backs that are clear-cut starters and will get a majority of the carries.

Dez Bryant has really struggled to produce this season, especially without Tony Romo. Are you still playing him Sunday, regardless? Give an example of who you would start over him.

None of our analysts rated Bryant better than a low-end WR2.

Marks: Bryant received no love from Matt Cassel on Monday night until late in the game, when they hooked up for a 42-yard pass in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys' offense is like a six-shooter without any bullets without Romo at quarterback, and this week they face the Packers. I have Dez down for 12 to 14 fantasy points in Week 14, which warrants no more than a flex play. Wide receivers that I would start over Dez this week: T.Y. Hilton, Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson.

McCormick: Bryant averaged 0.72 fantasy points per target from Romo this season and just 0.48 points per target from Cassel this season. I would start Danny Amendola over Dez Bryant. A higher volume of opportunities with a far better quarterback supports a higher floor for the diminutive Pats wideout, something that seems entirely insane when considering the talent gap between these guys. That said, Bryant is a low-end WR2/flex at this stage.

Rothstein: I wouldn't play him this week, despite the name status. In fact, I'd go a step further: The only reason you could play Bryant this week is due to FOMO (fear of missing out). The production just hasn't been there, and he's the No. 76 receiver at his position. Now, Bryant could have some extra motivation due to what happened in the playoffs last year at Green Bay, but he just hasn't had the consistency I would want in a playoff scenario. I would start Sammy Watkins over him, without question, considering he is facing the Eagles' defense. Vincent Jackson could also be a sneaky option if he's available. Since coming back from injury, he has had at least 11 points in the past three contests and Tampa plays New Orleans this week.

After posting double-digit fantasy points in each of his first seven games, Todd Gurley has totaled six over his past two outings. Where do you rank him for Week 14 against the Detroit Lions? Give an example of whom would you start over him.

Our contributors' responses run the gamut from top five to RB2 for Gurley this weekend.

Marks: Gurley owners have to be frustrated as of late, due to the fact he hasn't rushed for over 50 yards in three of his past four games. Not sure if this is Gurley hitting the "rookie wall" or an anemic Rams offense that doesn't pose a passing threat and allows defenses to put nine in the box against him. Week 14 could be very telling, considering Gurley has a favorable matchup against a Lions defense that is not stellar against the run. Running backs I have ranked higher than Gurley in Week 14: Jonathan Stewart, LeSean McCoy and Doug Martin.

Rothstein: I'd be wary of Gurley this week. The Lions' run defense has not allowed more than 68 yards on the ground since the bye, and bringing in defensive tackle C.J. Wilson was an underrated move. Rushing touchdowns have come in two of the four weeks since the bye, and Gurley is a better back than any of the ones Detroit has faced the past four weeks, but I'm somewhat skeptical nonetheless. If you're desperate, Shaun Draughn could be a good start. Now, I'm not advocating that for sure -- this is more of a buyer-beware situation on Gurley. But, if any back other than Adrian Peterson can solve Detroit's defense, it's Gurley.

McCormick: He's just outside of the RB1 tier for me as the No. 11 or 12 option at his position. If Jeff Fisher were a pitching coach, he'd regularly abuse pitch counts. As a football coach, Fisher regularly rides his backs into the ground, with Gurley now seeing limited exposure down the stretch after a series of heavy workloads. Gurley is a strong candidate to be RB1 overall next season, but on an inept offense prone to negative game flow, he's merely a strong RB2 for Sunday.