Fantasy Improv: Daniel and Liz talk Deshaun Watson's return, 49ers-Dolphins, Dameon Pierce and more

Daniel Dopp and Liz Loza talk life, fantasy football, pop culture and everything in between in the weekly Fantasy Improv column, which runs every Friday throughout the NFL season. Joe Kaiser serves as the moderator and attempts to keep things on track.

Joe: With the Browns moving from Jacoby Brissett to Deshaun Watson at quarterback this week (Watson was suspended for the first 11 games), how do you see it impacting the fantasy value of Nick Chubb, Amari Cooper, David Njoku, etc?

Daniel: All of the Browns get an uptick in value because of the QB change. Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones will both have a higher weekly floor, but I'm curious to see how quickly this all comes together knowing that Watson hasn't played in 670+ days.

Liz: Despite not having suited up for a professional outing in 703 days, the consensus is bullish on Watson -- and what his return means for the Browns. Cleveland opened as 7-point favorites. Watson is ranked as a top-10 fantasy play, per ESPN consensus. If he were playing a team other than the Texans, maybe talk about rust or matchup (dis)advantages would receive more oxygen, but here we are.

I don't care who managers roster or how they design their starting lineups (unless we're going H2H and their team has significantly more projected points than mine). The question for me is if managers need to start Watson, particularly with the postseason mere weeks away.

There are middle-of-the pack teams angling for a playoff run. And the side effects of an upside-down year for QBs haven't subsided. At the very least, that makes Watson a viable insurance policy for managers hoping to tweak rosters beyond mid-December.

As a research experiment, I took inventory of the top eight teams in a few of my leagues. Here are the starting QBs of each squad in one of the more competitive clubs:

Joe Burrow
Derek Carr
Jalen Hurts
Justin Herbert
Dak Prescott
Patrick Mahomes
Tua Tagovailoa
Kyler Murray

Outside of Mahomes (who presents with the third-most difficult/worst strength of schedule from Weeks 14-17) and Hurts, none of those names are home runs. Meanwhile, Watson plays two bottom-eight pass defenses over his next three games.

Daniel: Thank the Lord for Liz Loza.

Joe: As far as Watson goes, is there a parallel to be drawn to DeAndre Hopkins that shows that a player who missed time for non-physical injury reasons and has been practicing can hit the ground running?

Daniel: I don't think so. Hopkins being out for six weeks vs. a guy who has been out for two years just feels different to me. New offense. New coaches. New teammates. Nuk had already done this for two full years with Kyler. I have Watson as QB10 this week and I'm one of the lowest rankers on him this week for that reason.

Liz: I actually do believe there's an interesting parallel to be drawn between Watson and Hopkins. Not because they played together in Houston. And not as it pertains to Nuk's most recent return from a layoff. But the question posed has me thinking back to Hopkins' 2020 season. There was a strong sentiment that summer that Nuk would take awhile to "warm up" to life in the desert. A good number of drafters were worried that -- at least initially -- he'd struggle to learn a new system and develop chemistry with Kyler, who was entering his second year in the league at that time.

Nuk promptly silenced the doubters when he converted 14 of 16 for 151 yards in Week 1. His top-10 fantasy performance that year helped shift the narrative surrounding veteran players who change teams midcareer, proving that focused conditioning and talent can pay off immediately. (Tyreek Hill's 2022 showing further supports the argument... but I digress.)

Watson's situation is far less cut-and-dried than his former teammate's. Nuk had months between franchises. Watson is dealing with years. But both players were traded and entered/are entering their new situations in reportedly good physical health. Interestingly, Hopkins was 28 years old when he debuted for the Cardinals. Watson turned 27 this past September. Assuming Watson has remained as disciplined in his preparation, the QB is likely to pick up similarly to where he left off.

Daniel: By the way, there are so many good NFL matchups this week with Chiefs-Bengals, Eagles-Titans, Dolphins-49ers, heck, even Giants-Commanders will be a really good matchup. Is there one game from a fantasy or props perspective that you're drawn to? I'm super intrigued to see how this passing game of Tua, Hill and Waddle will do against the 49ers. On the other side of that, no Elijah Mitchell so CMC is the lead guy with TDP behind him. Will the Niners lean on CMC a little more or offload that work onto other teammates? I think he sees increased usage, but not to the extent that he'll vault into a top 3 back again. He's still a Top 10 RB for me in Week 13. Cannot wait for this one!

Liz: Like we talked about on Wednesday's pod, I'm also super intrigued to see what Mike McDaniel does in his homecoming at Levi Stadium. Tua is due for a massive test. And, to your point, we'll see if Kyle Shanahan can resist running his favorite new toy into the ground (can't imagine him going over 18 total touches). My best guess is that Deebo Samuel sees an uptick in backfield usage (which should light up McDaniel since he has been the one credited for unlocking that part of Samuel's game). And Trent Sherfield scores a TD that causes #fantasytwitter to post a slew of Michael Scott gifs.

Joe: I can't wait for this game, both from a fantasy perspective and just a football fan point of view. We're going to find out a lot about these teams on Sunday.

Looking around the rest of the league, are their any players who have name value that you are leery of starting at this point? Dameon Pierce is that guy for me. Even against the Browns' poor run defense, I'm just not sure Pierce is doing to get enough touches to be a factor the rest of the way this season. It's a shame, too, after his fantastic start.

Daniel: I'm totally with you on Pierce! His last two weeks have been disgusting (less than 40 total yards combined over the last two) and this week against a Browns team that should put up a bunch of points on this Texans team. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL for a negative game script here. I have him ranked just inside my Top 20 at the RB position because of the volume he gets, but I am not confident. I repeat, I am not confident in Pierce, but I'm likely having to start him.

Liz: You are so right about a negative game script for Pierce, Daniel. The Browns opened as 7-point favorites. That, obviously, doesn't bode well for Pierce. BUT he needs only to rip off a few long runs to make a dent. The Browns have allowed the seventh-most (1,106) rushing yards between the tackles and the 12th fewest (344) outside the tackles. Meanwhile 85% of Pierce's rush attempts have been up the middle. That's a good recipe for a few long runs, particularly noting the rookie's 61 evaded tackles (RB6) on the season. He's not in a smash spot, but I do think he fares better than he did over the past two weeks. I could see him posting something like 16-18 touches for around 75 total yards (with a 50/50 shot at a TD).

Liz: I'm intrigued to watch Mike White travel to Minnesota. That matchup is prime for the Jets' passing game, which I guess exists now? The Vikings have allowed the second-most passing yards to opposing QBs and the the most receiving yards to WRs over the past four weeks. I think we're all hedging a bit ranking White in the QB20 range. He has top-12 potential this week (particularly if he gets Elijah Moore more involved) but he's such an unknown that it's hard to start him over Brady, for example.

Joe: If White lights up the Vikings, even though the sample size would be just two games with him being the starting QB, can you imagine how much that would change things? His fantasy value would soar, Garrett Wilson's too. And you brought up Elijah Moore -- that continues to be something to watch closely. That game is going to be so fun to watch.

Liz: Who would have thought NYJ @ MIN would be must-see TV? Vegas is projecting a bit of a battle as the Vikes are only 3-point favorites.

Elsewhere, the Bears versus Packers tilt is personally complicated. Chicago gets a bye in Week 14 so it seems silly to start Justin Fields from a real-football POV. In fantasy, however, he's been a midseason savior for swaths of virtual squads. If Fields does sit then the Packers' DST (which is available in 56% of ESPN leagues) becomes a top-10/12 play.

The Chargers at the Raiders also looks to be an exciting game. The over/under is currently 50.5 and the Raiders are 1-point favorites. I like a battle, especially one that projects to be high-scoring. I'm bullish on both Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen in this outing. Definitely taking the over on Allen's 64.5 receiving yards.

Follow Liz Loza (@LizLoza_FF), Daniel Dopp (@DanielDopp) and Joe Kaiser (@joekaisersports) on Twitter. Liz Loza and Daniel Dopp's fantasy football rankings appear every week during the season.