Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It's the rare backfield by committee that is actually a good thing for fantasy managers. Every Tuesday, we'll ask our NFL Nation reporters a series of burning questions to help inform your waiver-wire pickups and roster decisions.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL's only remaining undefeated team, thanks in large part to their deep WR corps. Unfortunately, it has become a fantasy nightmare trying to project which of those receivers will go off in a given week.
This week, it was Diontae Johnson who returned from a back injury and broke out with nine catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans. JuJu Smith-Schuster also had his best game since Week 1, with nine catches for 85 yards.
Meanwhile, rookie Chase Claypool fell back down to earth with one catch for negative-2 yards -- after he was the leading scorer at any position in ESPN leagues in Weeks 5 and 6, with a combined total of 60.7 PPR points.
Credit ESPN Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor for consistently warning fantasy managers to temper their expectations for each of these guys because Pittsburgh spreads the ball around so much. But Pryor does have a suggested priority order, if you must choose among them.
"Johnson is a must start when he's healthy," Pryor said of the second-year pro. "He was an early favorite of Ben Roethlisberger, getting the lion's share of the targets, with 23 in the first two weeks. And when he returned Sunday, he resumed that top spot, with 15 targets to Smith-Schuster's 14. Roethlisberger has also talked about emphasizing having a strong relationship with Johnson, and it's something they've worked on in practice.
"Behind Johnson, I'd prioritize Smith-Schuster and then Claypool. Smith-Schuster has the rapport with Roethlisberger. And the best thing to happen to him is the development of the other receivers (to draw coverage away). With Claypool starting to break out, defenses have to respect him more. In Tennessee, the Titans put top corner Malcolm Butler on Claypool, freeing up Smith-Schuster and Johnson.
"Claypool didn't have a great day for fantasy managers -- speaking from experience. But his presence on the field opened things up for Johnson and Smith-Schuster."
Pryor also wrote last week about how Smith-Schuster has maintained a great attitude, even when his teammates were getting more opportunities, by playing the role of Pittsburgh's "No. 1 hype man."
"People were talking about, 'He only got me two points this week for fantasy.' I was like, 'Well, I mean, I'd rather have two points and be 5-0 than to be 1-4 and to have 25 fantasy points,'" Smith-Schuster said. "I'm having fun all the time, whether I get the ball or not, whether I get two catches for 10 yards or I get six catches for 60 yards."
Alas, because ESPN has no option of starting Diontae Smith-Claypool in your fantasy lineups, you'll probably be stuck guessing each week as long as the Steelers keep winning.
Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:
With Kenyan Drake expected to miss a few weeks because of a slight ligament tear in his ankle, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss confirmed that Edmonds will move into the lead RB role until Drake is healthy enough to return. That makes Edmonds an obvious priority on the fantasy waiver wire if he's available in your league.
Edmonds was already cutting into Drake's value as a runner and receiver in Arizona. He stepped up big-time in Sunday night's win over Seattle, with 145 yards from scrimmage. It's hard to recommend any other waiver priorities behind him, though, given that Weinfuss said the Cardinals will go with a "group effort" from running backs Eno Benjamin, D.J. Foster and Jonathan Ward.
Look who's back! Green has 15 catches on 24 targets for 178 yards the past two weeks. "Now that he has found his footing in his return from injury, he is a dependable option for fantasy managers in all leagues," according to Bengals reporter Ben Baby.
"After an uncharacteristic amount of frustration on Week 5 against Baltimore, Green has found a groove with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow," said Baby, who wrote last week that Green is feeling like his "old self again."
"Burrow's first target to Green in Week 7 was a back-shoulder throw that required a sense of trust between quarterback and receiver," Baby said. "The completion, along with the rest of the game from Green, shows he will be a big option for the Bengals' offense, especially as the receiver rotation has appeared to shrink as the season progresses."
Although that rotation still includes Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, Baby said the sheer volume of Cincinnati's passing attack (Burrow completed 35 passes for 406 yards on Sunday) ensures plenty of quality targets.
As Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, it will take "multiple guys" to replace WR Odell Beckham Jr. after he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Sunday. But Browns reporter Jake Trotter said that won't necessarily deflate Cleveland's passing attack in general.
Receivers Jarvis Landry (who revealed last week that he has been playing through a broken rib) and Rashard Higgins (who caught six passes for 110 yards Sunday) could both see an uptick in fantasy value. Tight end Harrison Bryant (four catches for 56 yards and two TDs Sunday) is more of a deep-league consideration.
"Cleveland's ceiling is obviously lower with Beckham out for the season. Its floor, however, could be a different story," Trotter said. "Over the last two seasons, Baker Mayfield and Beckham have the lowest completion percentage of any duo in the NFL. With OBJ out, Mayfield went through his progressions and found the open man against Cincinnati instead of worrying about forcing the ball to an elite playmaker. The result was a franchise-record 21 straight completions and five touchdown passes, including the game winner. Mayfield will have to prove he can do the same against somebody other than the Bengals, but the chemistry he's flashed with Landry and even Higgins has been more consistent than anything he ever had with Beckham, despite OBJ's game-breaking talent."
Just because rookie tight end Okwuegbunam seemingly came out of nowhere to catch seven passes for 60 yards in Week 7 doesn't mean he should be dismissed once starter Noah Fant is back to full health.
Again, we're talking very deep leagues here. But Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold said there is a "comfort level" between quarterback Drew Lock and the fourth-round draft pick since they played together at Missouri. Okwuegbunam was inactive the first four weeks after being slowed by a hip injury in training camp.
"He'll get targets when he's on the field because Lock will look to him. He's got 13 targets in 55 snaps played in his two games. He's also going to get a touchdown or two because they like him in their red zone groupings," Legwold said. "Fant's health will influence all of the snap counts at the position, but Okwuegbunam is going to get his playing time. And I would say he'd be in that 18-25 snap range even when Fant is healthy, at least as things stand right now."
Obviously, fantasy managers are having trouble buying in to Agholor's recent surge, based on the veteran receiver's track record of inconsistent production (he was only 1.8% rostered in ESPN leagues before catching five passes for 107 yards and a TD in Week 7).
But Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez also described him as someone who can't be dismissed.
"As long as he continues to produce, the more he will stay on the field," Gutierrez said. "Yeah, I know, a chicken-and-the-egg kind of statement. But Agholor, who was initially signed for depth after the Raiders drafted a pair of receivers in Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards to join returners Tyrell Williams and Zay Jones, has been a revelation. Especially with Williams on IR and Edwards out with a knee injury. Consider: Four of Agholor's 15 catches have been TDs.
"Still, the nasty case of the dropsies he experienced in Philadelphia showed up late against Tampa Bay, with one ball bouncing off Agholor's hands for an interception. So buyer beware."
As ESPN's Saints reporter, I can't promise that you'll see consistent production from the undrafted rookie receiver going forward (see teammate Tre'Quan Smith's mix of big and quiet days as an example). The Saints could get receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back within a couple of weeks, which will limit Callaway's opportunities.
But Callaway has certainly earned the trust of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees after he stepped up with eight catches for 75 yards on 10 targets while Thomas and Sanders were sidelined on Sunday. He also had a potential TD catch that was nullified by a teammate's offensive pass interference call.
If your pickings are slim, Callaway should rank right alongside Smith as a consideration this week if Thomas and/or Sanders remains out.
Tight end Evan Engram was so close to having a long-awaited big game on Thursday -- before his two dropped passes put another damper on his disappointing season. Meanwhile, receiver Sterling Shepard stepped up as a trusted option for the Giants, with six catches for 59 yards and a TD.
"Engram's time will come. It has just been a painful wait," Giants reporter Jordan Raanan said. "The Giants are committed to their tight end, who also happens to be their most explosive offensive weapon. They put an emphasis on getting him the ball Thursday night. Engram had nine targets and two carries. Expect that to continue, and eventually, he will get back to the guy who averaged over 50 yards per game receiving, rather than the 31.9 he's produced through seven weeks.
"Shepard, however, is a much surer bet to produce this week as long as he's healthy. Shepard returned from missing four games with turf toe and immediately became Daniel Jones' most trusted target. Shepard had eight passes thrown in his direction on 23 routes run. While that target percentage won't continue, Shepard will be an integral part of this passing game, especially if Darius Slayton's foot problem lingers."
Niners reporter Nick Wagoner preached caution after Aiyuk had his first big game in Week 3. He was right to do so, given that the rookie receiver had quieter performances the next three weeks.
But Wagoner said it's reasonable to feel more confident in Aiyuk after he caught six passes for 115 yards in Week 7, especially considering that fellow receiver Deebo Samuel is battling a hamstring injury, and the 49ers are about to face Seattle's vulnerable pass defense.
"While Aiyuk might see more attention from opposing defenses [if Samuel is sidelined], he still has George Kittle and a much better run game to help open up opportunities for him. Those are things he didn't necessarily have when he flashed earlier in the season," Wagoner said. "Also, Aiyuk is clearly growing more comfortable in the offense and has expanded the variety of routes and things he's doing within the offense, in addition to building further rapport with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
"Does that mean 100-yard games every week? Probably not. But I do think there will be more of a concerted effort to feed him the ball until Samuel is back to full speed."
This is no surprise, but Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson confirmed that Hyde will become the primary tailback if Chris Carson has to miss time because of his foot injury. The veteran stepped up when Carson got hurt Sunday and ran 15 times for 68 yards and a TD.
"Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas would still see time in rotational roles. All three can catch the ball. But Hyde has what Homer and Dallas don't: the size and physicality to approximate what Carson gives Seattle on early downs," Henderson said. "That's why there was some preference in the organization to Hyde, even when the Seahawks had an offer out to Devonta Freeman [in the offseason]."
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Washington reporter John Keim said he still expects a "game-by-game situation" with the RB rotation. But it was a good sign for Gibson's progress when the rookie ran the ball 20 times for 128 yards and a TD on Sunday. Gibson had just 13 touches a week earlier, while veteran J.D. McKissic played a larger role -- and Keim said the team acknowledged that Gibson has to learn while transitioning from playing receiver in college.
"They were able to play with a real lead for the first time this season, and that mattered, allowing them to get more runs," Keim said of Washington's 25-3 rout of Dallas in Week 7. "But Gibson continues to improve. He's been much better at not trying to turn every play into a huge gain and, instead, is seeing the value of those 3-to-4-yard runs on a first down.
"But I still think each guy has a defined role, including Peyton Barber, so I'd proceed with some caution."
McKissic actually played one more snap than Gibson (34 to 33). But Keim said the team likes the versatility of both backs, as well as Gibson's big-play ability. Keim pointed out that Gibson's longest run (a 40-yarder) came on a well-designed play fake when he was lined up as a slot receiver while McKissic was in the backfield.