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.
Both of the Indianapolis Colts' second-round draft picks have been late bloomers of sorts. But receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor seem to be peaking at the right time after a big overtime win against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Taylor had 22 carries for 90 yards and four catches for 24 yards in the 34-31 win -- by far his most touches since Week 2. And he had a potential 20-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that was nullified by a holding penalty.
However, Colts reporter Mike Wells still stressed some caution with your expectations of Taylor going forward.
As Wells explained in this column two weeks ago, Indy was always going to give Taylor "every opportunity" to become the lead back by featuring him early in games. But as we saw when Taylor was being outproduced by veteran teammates Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in recent weeks (much to the chagrin of Taylor's fantasy managers), coach Frank Reich was always going to stick with the hot hand as the game went on.
This time, that hot hand turned out to be Taylor.
"Don't assume that Taylor will have a repeat performance every week," Wells said. "I call it Frank Reich likes to 'ride the wave' with Taylor. But if he's rolling, he's sticking with him."
Colts coach Frank Reich has a message for fantasy players: "I almost look at all our of running backs as starters...I know it's frustrating to fantasy players, but it's just the way we roll." (cc @MikeTriplett)— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) November 23, 2020
On the other hand, Wells is even more optimistic that Pittman's role will continue to grow in Indy's offense after he had four catches for 56 yards in Week 9; seven catches for 101 yards and one run for 21 yards in Week 10; and three catches for 66 yards, including his first career TD, in Week 11.
That doesn't mean Pittman should be started ahead of Taylor in fantasy leagues. But Pittman should be rostered in more than 25.7% of ESPN leagues.
"Buy into Pittman. I'm a Pittman guy," said Wells, who pointed out that Colts quarterback Philip Rivers has always liked big, physical targets like the 6-foot-4, 223-pounder, dating to his days with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Indeed, the four guys who have caught the most passes from Rivers all-time are tight end Antonio Gates (6-foot-4) and receivers Keenan Allen (6-2), Malcom Floyd (6-5) and Vincent Jackson (6-5) -- in addition to more recent connections with players such as Mike Williams (6-4) and Tyrell Williams (6-4).
"Look at the history for further proof of the Rivers-Pittman connection. They've all been big, strong, fast guys," said Wells, who suggested that might be part of the issue with Rivers' lack of consistent production with 5-10 receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:
Originally, this column was going to lead with rookie J.K. Dobbins' emergence as the leading man in Baltimore's backfield. But then news broke that both Dobbins and veteran RB Mark Ingram tested positive for COVID-19.
But in the long term, it sure looks like Dobbins is someone you can feel comfortable starting once he returns. Even Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday that it's "obvious" he is Baltimore's "featured runner now" after he had 15 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown and two catches for 15 yards in Sunday's overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans.
"Even though the Ravens won't officially give the lead back title to Dobbins, all expectations are the second-round pick will become the featured back [when everyone is healthy]," said Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley -- who has stressed all season that coach John Harbaugh is big on "earning the right" to play more.
"Over the last three quarters and overtime Sunday, Dobbins had 15 carries while Edwards had one and Ingram had none. For the first time, it was a one-back show for the Ravens. Dobbins is Baltimore's most explosive playmaker outside of Lamar Jackson, and the Ravens need a spark after losing three of their last four games."
Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's season-ending knee injury will almost certainly have an adverse effect on the fantasy value of the Bengals' wide receivers. Burrow ranked No. 1 in the NFL in pass attempts per game through the first 10 weeks of the season.
"Until proven otherwise, fantasy managers shouldn't depend on any Bengals receivers except for Tyler Boyd," Bengals reporter Ben Baby said. "Boyd will command enough targets to remain valuable in PPR and non-PPR leagues. However, the other two previously viable options -- rookie Tee Higgins and veteran A.J. Green -- will likely see their productions drop.
"Higgins had a strong rapport with fellow rookie Joe Burrow and developed into the team's best downfield passing option. The quarterback change will likely further limit an offense that doesn't throw a ton of deep balls. Second-year QB Ryan Finley did look improved during training camp. But in Sunday's loss to Washington, Finley was a mere 3-of-10 passing for 30 yards after Burrow was knocked out of the game.
"If things don't look great against the New York Giants this weekend, even Boyd's long-term outlook could come into question."
Boyd and Green each caught one pass on two targets from Finley Sunday, while Higgins caught zero on four targets.
Finley and Boyd have a rapport that dates back to Finley's three starts last season -- but that doesn't guaranteed any consistent results. That stretch included both a 101-yard game and a 0-yard game for Boyd.
The undrafted sixth-year journeyman could be a popular waiver addition this week after he gained a career-high 132 receiving yards and a TD on six catches in Sunday's loss to the Houston Texans, and also ran one time for 11 yards. But Patriots reporter Mike Reiss said he would "tread lightly" with fantasy expectations.
Patriots QB Cam Newton threw for 365 yards on 40 pass attempts in Sunday's loss at Houston, and there usually isn't that much volume to spread around in New England's passing game.
"Consider that the week before, against Baltimore, Byrd played 42 snaps and wasn't targeted once in the game," Reiss said. "A combination of the Patriots getting away from the run a bit, and playing from behind for most of the second half, contributed to his spike in production against the Texans. Also, the climate-controlled venue in Houston -- and fast turf -- probably should be part of the discussion as well, since Byrd's primary asset is speed. Byrd is a great story -- having worked his way into a key role -- but his fantasy value would fall into the volatile category from my view."
Taysom Hill effect, New Orleans Saints
My best fantasy analysis of the year as ESPN Saints reporter: When I said last Tuesday that managers should continue to start WR Michael Thomas with confidence every week, because his three quiet games this season could all be explained and chalked up to a small samples.
My worst fantasy analysis: When I reversed course a bit after Hill was named the Saints' starting QB, cautioning that Thomas' opportunities might be limited as a result.
Thomas was targeted on 12 of Hill's 23 pass attempts in Sunday's 24-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons, for season highs of nine catches and 104 yards. He should've had another downfield catch as well but admitted to making a rare and "terrible drop." Hill might not throw for heavy volume every week during Drew Brees' injury absence, but this was continued proof Thomas will remain the Saints' top target in the passing game -- as he was for fellow backup QB Teddy Bridgewater last year, too.
On the flip side, Saints RB Alvin Kamara went without a catch for the first time in his NFL career after catching a staggering 67 passes in the first nine games. But he did score his 12th touchdown of the season.
Perhaps Kamara's astronomical fantasy value will take a slight hit with Hill at quarterback, because Hill throws downfield more than Brees and will vulture some of the goal-line carries away from Kamara. But Kamara remains an obvious must-start.
Woe is the fantasy manager (including me) who has been saving Wentz on his bench to use against the Seattle Seahawks' porous pass defense this week. Eagles reporter Tim McManus does not believe there is a realistic chance of Wentz getting benched in real life just yet. But as the quarterback continues to regress this season, it's hard to justify starting him even against a Seattle defense that has allowed the second-most fantasy points to quarterbacks this year.
"I see the logic there. Add in the fact that this is a revenge game for Wentz, who was knocked out of the Eagles-Seahawks wild-card game in January with a concussion on a questionable hit by Jadeveon Clowney, and there's some reason to think Wentz might show up in a big way for this one," McManus said. "But the first 10 games of the season have provided overwhelming evidence that Wentz is in the midst of a tailspin. The ball is not coming out on time, and that has led to a slew of problems from sacks to turnovers to an overall clunky running offense. Maybe he breaks out here, but I'd be hesitant to start him given what he has shown us week after week."
However, McManus did stress that "it would require a complete 180 in coach Doug Pederson's thinking (or his bosses stepping in and overriding him) for Wentz not to be under center to start the game."
"Pederson has been very strong in his wording, saying a Wentz benching would be 'sending the wrong message to your football team that the season is over,'" said McManus, who wrote a great analysis on what the ramifications would be for the Eagles even if they turned to backup Jalen Hurts on only a temporary basis.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Let's finish with one more rookie running back whose role continues to increase. Gibson had another 16 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's 20-9 win over the Bengals, continuing his breakout pace in the past four games. Washington reporter John Keim said the team will "continue to try to use him in the run game as the featured back" even though fellow RB J.D. McKissic remains so heavily involved as a runner and pass-catcher.
"Ron Rivera knows they must ground it out and rely on Alex Smith's wisdom more than his arm if they want a chance at winning the NFC East. Each of the three backs (including Peyton Barber) will maintain a role similar to what they have now," said Keim, who pointed out that the converted college receiver "continues to improve" despite the occasional missed hole.
Keim said Gibson is getting better with yards after contact and showed Sunday that he could bait a linebacker with a fake step inside to create a crease on an outside run.
"The only issue will be whether or not the defense can keep them in games," Keim said -- because Gibson's production has been better when Washington is protecting a lead. "They've fallen behind by double digits in every game but two this season. If they can keep games close, then they can rely on Gibson."