Divisional Round Fantasy Sleepers
Travis Kelce? Nick Chubb? Cam Akers?
Yeah, we all have those guys in our sites as we set fantasy football lineups for the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.
But whether you’re entering the FFPC’s Playoff Challenge 2 or just trying to win some DFS cash this weekend, you’ll also need to find some sneakier options. So I’ve looked into some trends, matchups and recent performances to try to uncover at least 1 option on every remaining team.
Let’s hit them now, in order of the weekend’s games ...
Los Angeles Rams
Cam Akers figures to be the highest-owned Ram across positions now that he’s posted a big stat line in the win over the Seahawks and gets an even weaker run defense this week. He’s a fine play across formats. But if you’re seeking for potential gems at lower ownership rates, look toward the passing game.
WR Robert Woods appears headed for a 1-on-1 matchup Saturday with Packers lead CB Jaire Alexander, Pro Football Focus’ top-graded corner for the entire season. We’d certainly bet on Woods drawing the most attention from Alexander, but it doesn’t look like a shadow situation.
For starters, Alexander hasn’t played more than 1 snap off the left-outside spot in a game since Week 8. If he stays there throughout Saturday’s contest, then the Rams should have an easy time keeping Woods away from him. Even if they decide to let Alexander travel more, though, he’s not likely headed to the slot. Alexander played no more than 4 snaps in the slot in any game this season (20 total snaps in 15 games), according to Pro Football Focus. Last season found Alexander lining up in the slot on just 6.8% of his total defensive snaps.
Woods, meanwhile, moves around the formation. And despite increasing their multiple-TE looks over the 2nd half of this year, the Rams still moved Woods inside more late in the year. From Week 1 through Week 11, he spent 36.9% of his WR snaps in the slot. From Week 12 through Week 17, that climbed to 46.5%.
Last week found Woods playing a season-low 23.5% of his snaps in the slot. The previous 2 games found him over 50%, though (including 52% in Week 17 with Cooper Kupp inactive).
I mentioned the extra snaps for TEs later in the year, and that makes both Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett worth a look for cheap upside.
From Week 1 through Week 12 (excluding the game he missed), Higbee ran a route on 48.3% of Rams pass plays. Since Week 13, he has run a route on 63% of those plays. Higbee has seen his target share rise from 10% to just 12.3% for the 2 spans -- but at least there’s more opportunity.
Everett, meanwhile, has seen his route rate jump from 38% to 55.1% for the 2 spans mentioned. His target share has gone from 8.7% to 12.3%.
Green Bay finished the year as a bad matchup for TEs (9th in Football Outsiders coverage DVOA vs. the position and 3rd in our adjusted fantasy points allowed). So this isn’t a high-ceiling spot -- especially with Higbee and Everett splitting the targets. But either could sneak in a TD.
Green Bay Packers
There’s not much sneaky here, with Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones clearly leading the way as Green Bay fantasy options. But there’s a big enough gap between them and everyone else to turn an 11-score TE into a potential sleeper.
Robert Tonyan isn’t a good bet for target volume. He topped 5 in that category just twice all year -- including 0 times since Week 8. But there’s room for him to become more popular in this matchup.
The Rams allowed the NFL’s fewest PPR points to WRs this regular season. They yielded the 5th-fewest points to RBs. They gave up the 10th-fewest PPR points to TEs. That obviously doesn’t make it a great matchup, but more friendly than for the other positions. And if you go by our adjusted fantasy points allowed, the Rams fall from 10th to 16th.
Further, Football Outsiders has the Rams’ defense easily softest in the middle by far, whether looking at short passes, deep passes or overall. L.A. ranks 4th in overall pass-defense DVOA but just 21st on passes to the middle.
Tonyan averaged 12.2 yards per catch “between the numbers” this year, according to PFF, and scored on 23.8% of his receptions. That compares favorably with “outside” catches, which found him averaging 10.0 yards per reception and scoring at a 6.1% rate.
You know that the Chiefs defense presents a favorable rushing matchup for Nick Chubb. That obviously extends to Kareem Hunt as well. And it might favor Hunt’s game even more.
Kansas City allowed 50.7% of the PPR scoring yielded to RBs via receptions. That was the league’s 3rd-largest share for the regular season, behind only Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
Hunt certainly did not own the passing-game portion of backfield opportunities. But he has edged Chubb in both route rate and total share of passing snaps in their shared, healthy games:
Overall, Hunt has also caught 1.6 more passes per game in 5 losses that in the 12 wins.
WR Jarvis Landry figures to be a fine “run-back” option in your Patrick Mahomes-led DFS lineups. He has caught 5+ balls in 6 straight games and averaged 6.2 receptions per contest for December and January after averaging just 4.2 per game through November. But don’t forget about Austin Hooper.
The Chiefs finished the regular season as the 6th-friendliest scoring matchup for TEs by our adjusted fantasy points allowed. Compare that with being 2nd-toughest on WR scoring.
Hooper has caught 5+ balls in 3 of the past 4 games and cracked 11 targets twice in that span. Baker Mayfield attempted nearly 9 more passes per game in losses (36.4) vs. wins (27.6) during the regular season.
Kansas City Chiefs
You’re obviously not looking beyond Kelce, Mahomes or Tyreek Hill for Playoff Challenge lineups, but a pair of WRs could offer you upside at attractive DFS savings.
Sammy Watkins has missed the 1st 2 days of practice this week with a hamstring injury and doesn’t seem to be trending toward playing Sunday. That would be good news for both Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.
Hardman is the high-ceiling talent that fantasy players everywhere have been tracking ever since the Chiefs drafted him. He enters this game having played 61% and 60% of the snaps in his past 2 games: the 1st a game that included Watkins, while the 2nd did not. Hardman brings a low target floor whenever Tyreek Hill is still around. But he also sports the speed to make a worthwhile fantasy game out of 1 play. And he’s $200 cheaper than Robinson on DraftKings this week.
Robinson, meanwhile, has played 61% and 89% of the offensive snaps the past 2 games. He also led Hardman in playing time when Watkins missed 5 games earlier this season, reaching 55% in all 5 and cracking 80% three times. As Jared pointed out on Twitter on Thursday, Robinson ran a route on 83.1% of pass plays over that span, vs. just 50.7% for Hardman.
Robinson has repeatedly proved his limitations as a player, but Andy Reid clearly likes him. More importantly, Robinson has posted 5+ catches 4 times this season and scored just 1 fewer TD than Hardman on the year (4-3).
The presence of both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss has made both forgettable fantasy assets for most of this season. But now Moss is done for the playoffs with an ankle injury. That should mean a much larger workload for Singletary. Although we can’t expect big things on the ground for him in the matchup that just quelled Derrick Henry, Singletary might just match up decently with Baltimore.
The Ravens allowed 48.9% of their RB PPR scoring via receptions this season, the league’s 6th-highest share. And the Football Outsiders numbers agree with Baltimore being soft in RB coverage. FO rates the Ravens:
3rd vs. #1 WRs
16th vs. #2 WRs
5th vs. “other” WRs
21st vs. RBs
22nd vs. TEs
Even in a disappointing sophomore campaign, Singletary still finished 3rd among Bills in receptions.
The last line in that last above also makes Dawson Knox worth a look at his $3100 DraftKings salary. That combined with our projection for the Buffalo TE has him 2nd among all TEs in DK dollars per point for the weekend.
I have to admit, this team carries the weakest set of sleeper prospects. I’d recommend reaching for other teams’ options first -- and not opting for a “sneaky” Raven for your Playoff Challenge lineup.
If Baltimore plays from ahead, then RB Gus Edwards has a shot to do something. He has averaged 9.4 carries per game in 12 victories vs. 7.8 carries in 5 losses -- and that latter number even got a boost from his season-high 16 rushes coming in the 1st loss to Pittsburgh.
The Bills still sit middle of the league in run-defense DVOA, but they got stronger in that area late in the year. Check out their weekly ratings from FO (the more negative the rating the better for defense):
In the passing game, WR Willie Snead gets a positive matchup. Slot CB Taron Johnson stands as easily the softest cover man among Bills corners. His 1.33 yards allowed per route covered (according to PFF) ranks 5th-highest among projected CB starters this weekend. Johnson also finished the year last among the top 3 Buffalo corners in completion rate allowed and overall grade.
Despite entering last week’s game questionable, Snead got back to his normal level of playing time … and his normal level of delivering small numbers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We know the Saints come in as a tough rushing matchup, ranking 3rd in DVOA for the season in that category. But they haven’t proved quite so tough lately.
Of the 9 RB rushing scores New Orleans allowed all year, 6 came among the season’s final 4 games. The Saints also allowed 5.2 yards per carry to RBs over that span, compared with 3.4 yards per rush through the 1st 12.
The defense’s weekly DVOA ratings vs. the run support the idea that it weakened in that area late:
This would be good news for Ronald Jones if he were/will be healthy. He did return to a limited practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday (and, of course, the 1st-round win over Washington).
As it is, I’d go Leonard Fournette over Jones even if the latter is active. Fournette has tended to be the better receiving bet over Jones this season, and the Bucs may decide to start the healthier runner -- then stick with him if things are working. Fournette makes for a sneakier option across formats.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints racked up 34 and then 38 points in beating the Bucs twice this season. But offense wasn’t always that easy to come by.
New Orleans managed just 271 total yards back in Week 1. Drew Brees threw for a mere 160, while Alvin Kamara totaled just 67 yards from scrimmage. His next try proved even tougher, yielding only 49 total yards.
But Kamara caught 5 balls in each and scored a rushing TD each time. So fully fading him on a small slate of games doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Michael Thomas was OK in the 2nd meeting, which was his 1st game back from the high-ankle sprain that clearly limited him in the 1st. He has since gone back to doing Michael Thomas things and racked up 94+ yards in 5 straight meetings with the Bucs before this season. So he should also be fine.
But if you’re looking for something sneaky, it could be TE Jared Cook.
His biggest issue has been volume. Cook has reached 4 receptions just 4 times all year -- but 2 of those have come in the past 2 games. That doesn’t look like an accident.
Before the Week 10 game that saw Drew Brees leave with 74 fractured ribs at halftime, Cook had been targeted on 12% of New Orleans pass attempts. In 4 games since Brees returned, Cook has seen 15.8%.
TE has been Tampa Bay’s biggest coverage weak spot this season. FO rates the Bucs just 25th in the league vs. that position. Cook snagged 5 balls for 80 yards against them on 7 targets back in the opener. The targets and receptions remain tied for his season high. The yardage trails his high by just 2 yards -- and sits 28 yards ahead of the 3rd-best game.
Cooks managed only 2 receptions in the 2nd Tampa meeting, but that game saw Brees throw 2 of his 4 TD passes to TEs Adam Trautman and Josh Hill.