Sneaky Starts: Week 4
All but the luckiest fantasy owners at some point need to find the proverbial diamond in the rough—a waiver wire or bench player capable of putting up some points in a pinch. This weekly feature is dedicated to that part of fantasy football. It's not pretty, but it's part of the game.
Week 3 of this column had several hits. Ryan Tannehill, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, James Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Nyheim Hines, Tim Patrick, Emmanuel Sanders, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Austin Hooper and Dawson Knox all exceeded Week 3 expectations.
Since we now have updated adjusted fantasy points allowed (aFPA) for 2021, I’ll include the defense’s ranking in that metric for each matchup.
Let’s take a look at the top Sneaky Starts for Week 4.
Kirk Cousins, Vikings (vs. CLE, 23)
Cousins is currently the No. 4 fantasy quarterback, so this isn’t all that sneaky. But I have a new rule—start Cousins at home. In 15 home games since the 2019 season, Cousins is averaging 2.33 pass touchdowns and 20.2 fantasy points per game. The Browns shut down Justin Fields, but Tyrod Taylor/Davis Mills combined for 227/2 and Patrick Mahomes posted 337/3 in Week 1.
Baker Mayfield, Browns (@ MIN, 20)
Mayfield has been solid if unspectacular thus far, averaging 260 yards and 0.67 touchdowns through three weeks. He’s running a bit (16 yards per game) and has a rushing touchdown to boot. Minnesota’s defense has yielded 320 yards and 2.0 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks through three weeks.
Sam Darnold, Panthers (@ DAL, 6)
Darnold is currently the No. 12 fantasy quarterback, throwing for an average of 296 yards and 1.0 passing touchdown, while adding 5.7 yards rushing and 1.0 rushing touchdown per game. The Cowboys have given up an average of 348 yards and 2.33 touchdowns to Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert and Tom Brady.
Joe Burrow, Bengals (vs. JAX, 14)
The Jaguars have yielded 312/1.33 through three weeks. Burrow has been so-so; his yardage (213.3 per game) has been low, but he has seven passing touchdowns through three games and showed an improved willingness to run with five rushing attempts in Week 3.
Taylor Heinicke, Washington (@ ATL, 17)
This feels like it might be a trap but hear me out: Heinicke has amassed 548 passing yards and four touchdowns in two weeks and has added 27 rushing yards and a score on the ground. The Falcons held Daniel Jones in check (266 yards, no touchdowns), but gave up 276/5 to Tom Brady and 264/3 to Jalen Hurts in the first two weeks.
Matt Ryan, Falcons (vs. WAS, 30)
Jacoby Brissett, Dolphins (vs. IND, 22)
Zach Wilson, Jets (vs. TEN, 16)
After a solid showing (18.3 fantasy points) against the Panthers in Week 1, Wilson had the misfortune of facing the Patriots and Broncos in Week 2 and Week 3. He might be able to “get right” against the Titans, who gave up 289/4 to Kyler Murray and 343/2 to Russell Wilson in the first two weeks before shutting down the Colts’ passing attack in Week 3.
Chuba Hubbard, Panthers (@ DAL, 10)
Christian McCaffrey handled nine touches before leaving in Week 3 with a hamstring injury. Hubbard out-touched Royce Freeman by a 14-to-6 margin. Applying that 70% touch share to the team’s total (29) yields 20.3 touches, which is within Hubbard’s range heading into Week 4. The Cowboys have given up 4.97 yards per carry and 57 receiving yards per game to opposing backfields.
Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (@ NE, 26)
It was a pretty brutal outing for the Bucs on the ground—Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for nine carries and 19 yards. Giovani Bernard added 9-51-1 as a receiver as the Bucs gave up on the run and tried to play catch-up. I’m expecting a far more favorable game script this week. Don’t forget—Fournette drew the start in Week 3, and he may see most of the passing down work since Bernard is dealing with a sprained MCL.
Cordarrelle Patterson & Mike Davis, Falcons (vs. WAS)
Patterson is the No. 10 fantasy back, while Davis is sitting at No. 30. The difference is that Patterson has found the end zone twice. Davis has out-touched Patterson 50-to-34, but in Week 3 the ratio was 16-to-13. Patterson is the better start at this point but both players have some appeal this week.
Peyton Barber, Raiders (@ LAC, 24)
We’ll see if Josh Jacobs is able to return this week. If he’s out, Barber should serve as the lead back after his 26-touch, 142-yard, one-touchdown effort last week against the Dolphins. It’s surprising to see the Raiders give Barber this much work after handing Kenyan Drake a big contract to be Jacobs’ backup, but the Raiders are going to Raider, right? The Chargers have been getting gashed on the ground. They’ve yielded 170 total yards and 1.0 touchdown on 29.3 touches to opposing backfields through three weeks.
Trey Sermon & Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers (vs. SEA, 32)
If Elijah Mitchell is able to return this week, then he’ll take over this spot as a Sneaky Start. I think the job is his if he’s healthy enough to play. However, if he misses Week 4, then Sermon and Juszczyk are both worth a look as they split the touches in Week 3 against the Packers. Sermon saw more carries (10 to 5) but Juszczyk caught twice as many passes (4 to 2) and ran more routes (29 to 22). Both players found the end zone.
Michael Carter, Jets (vs. TEN 17)
With Tevin Coleman sidelined, Carter out-touched Ty Johnson by a margin of 11-to-4, though Johnson did play more snaps (57% to 43%) since they trust him more in pass protection. If Coleman is back, then Carter won’t be as appealing, though his touch counts in the last two weeks (13, 11) are encouraging.
Brandon Bolden, Patriots (vs. TB, 5)
This is purely a desperation play, but might be useful for teams in very deep leagues, especially PPR formats. With James White out, Bolden stepped in as the primary passing-down back in Week 3 and out-snapped Damien Harris by a margin of 46% to 31%. Harris can’t be trusted in pass protection and the Bucs are very stingy against the run, so Bolden may play a lot this week if the Pats try to take advantage of the Bucs’ leaky secondary.
Corey Davis, Jets (vs. TEN, 28)
Like all the other Jets in this column, Davis is coming off of two tough matchups against the Patriots and Broncos and things are looking up in Week 4 against the Titans. Remember, he posted 5-97-2 on seven targets in Week 1 and tore up the preseason, showing a great rapport with Zach Wilson. I see a bounce-back game in Week 4.
Cole Beasley & Emmanuel Sanders, Bills (vs. HOU, 11)
Beasley posted 11-98 on 13 targets—his second 13-target game of the season—while Sanders broke out with 5-94-2 on six targets. Both players should produce against the Texans assuming the Bills remain pass-heavy in neutral or favorable game scripts.
Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins (vs. IND, 10)
I was worried about the return of Will Fuller and the quarterback change, but Waddle saw 13 targets (26.5% target share) in Jacoby Brissett’s first start. He has a nice matchup in the slot with Kenny Moore.
Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers (vs. SEA, 16)
It’s time to start thinking about starting Aiyuk again (and that buy-low window might be closed after this week). His snap counts have increased from 47% to 54% to 86% in the last three weeks, and he caught 4-of-6 targets for 37 yards and a touchdown against the Packers on Sunday night. Aiyuk should match up well with D.J. Reed and Tre Flowers on the outside.
Tim Patrick, Broncos (vs. BAL, 12)
Patrick just keeps producing. He has posted 4-39-1, 3-37-1 and 5-98 in the first three weeks. He’s a dangerous play since his volume is low (4.3 targets per game), but K.J. Hamler (ACL) is out, so his 3.3 targets per game are up for grabs. Baltimore is typically a bad matchup, but Marlon Humphrey hasn’t been that great this season.
Jakobi Meyers & Nelson Agholor, Patriots (vs. TB, 32)
The Patriots aren’t going to be able to run on the Bucs, so I’m expecting a pass-heavy game script for Mac Jones and Co. As you can see, the Bucs are last in the league in adjusted fantasy points allowed to receivers. Meyers saw 14 targets last week and is averaging 9.7 per game. Agholor had eight targets last week and is averaging 6.0 per game, though it was Kendrick Bourne who found the end zone against the Saints.
Christian Kirk, Cardinals (@ LAR, 25)
Kirk has gained at least 65 yards in the first three games and has the best matchup of the Cardinals’ receivers (with slot corner Darious Williams). Rondale Moore could surprise as well since this is likely to be a shootout.
Robby Anderson, Panthers (@ DAL, 13)
With Christian McCaffrey out, Anderson could see a few extra targets after pretty low usage in the first three weeks. HC Matt Rhule said last week that Anderson needed to be more involved in the offense. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have given up four 90+ yard days to opposing receivers in the first three weeks.
Kenny Golladay & Collin Johnson, Giants (@ NO, 26)
The status of Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton is key here, but assuming they’re out, look for Golladay and Johnson to see the bulk of the targets destined for the Giants’ receiving corps. Last week, Golladay caught 4-of-5 targets for 64 yards while Johnson caught 5-of-7 targets for 51 yards and actually led the team in air yards.
James Washington, Steelers (@ GB, 23)
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers (vs. PIT, 14)
MVS broke out with a 3-59-1 day against the 49ers, but he’s still underperforming given his usage. (He’s eighth in the league in air yards.) Joe Haden (4.62 40-yard speed) and James Pierre (4.59) won’t be able to keep up with Valdes-Scantling’s 4.37 speed. The Steelers’ safeties are faster, but not as fast as MVS.
Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Titans (@ NYJ, 3)
A.J. Brown left early with a hamstring injury and Julio Jones was limited late in the game with a lower leg injury, so Westbrook-Ikhine actually led the team in routes (27) and tied for team-lead in targets (4), catching all four for 53 yards and a touchdown. The Jets have been stingy against the pass so this is more of a volume play than a matchup play.
Dawson Knox, Bills (vs. HOU, 31)
Knox is the No. 6 tight end in fantasy. He hasn’t set the world on fire, but he’s caught two touchdowns and surpassed 41 receiving yards in two of three games. The Texans have yielded an average of 7.0 receptions for 77 yards and 0.33 touchdowns per game to opposing tight ends this season.
Mike Gesicki, Dolphins (vs. IND, 16)
Jacoby Brissett’s debut went well for Gesicki, who saw 12 targets and a 24.5% target share against the Raiders. He caught 10 passes for 86 yards. It was surprising usage given the return of Will Fuller, but tight end streamers will take it.
Hunter Henry, Patriots (vs. TB, 20)
Henry has the 14th-most air yards at his position and he ran 39 routes to Jonnu Smith’s 15 in Week 3. (Smith struggled with some bad drops.) Henry caught 5-of-6 targets for 36 yards. The Patriots are unlikely to run effectively on the Bucs, so I expect the passing game has some upside, Henry included.
Tyler Conklin, Vikings (vs. CLE, 9)
I was touting Conklin as a sleeper once Irv Smith was lost for the year, but his first two games were pretty quiet despite a snap rate of 71%+ each week. Everything changed in Week 3, when he caught 7-of-8 targets for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks. He’s barely in the top 25 in tight end air yards but he’s 12th in targets (5.3).
Dalton Schultz, Cowboys (vs. CAR, 15)
Cameron Brate, Buccaneers (@ NE, 2)
Rob Gronkowski is out, so Brate should step into a large role against the Patriots. In the 31 career games where he's played at least 35 snaps, he has averaged 3.7-43-0.45 on 5.6 targets per game. The Patriots are very stingy against tight ends, though he may get loose a few times if Bill Belichick and Co. are focused on containing the team's excellent WR corps.
Anthony Firkser, Titans (vs. NYJ, 4)
It's not a particularly good matchup, from an aFPA standpoint, but Firkser could see heavy targets with A.J. Brown out and Julio Jones likely joining Brown on the sideline. He has seen five or more targets five times last season, posting 3-19 (5), 8-113-1 (9), 3-19 (6), 4-33 (5) and 5-51 (7).
Evan Engram, Giants (@ NO, 10)
Will Dissly, Seahawks (@ SF, 8)
Dissly should play starter-level snaps with Gerald Everett on the COVID-19 list. He has had some big games in his career when he's had a big snap rate. Remember, he had a stretch in 2018-19 where he found the end zone six times in eight games.
Pat Freiermuth, Steelers (@ GB, 32)
Freiermuth saw the 11th-most air yards at his position in Week 3 and was targeted five times, catching three for 22 yards and a touchdown. With the Steelers’ receiving corps possibly missing Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Freiermuth could be productive against the Packers, who have yielded an average of 7.0 catches for 66 yards and 1.0 touchdowns per game to George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson and the duo of Juwan Johnson and Adam Trautman.
Jacob Hollister, Jaguars (@ CIN, 14)
Props to a 4for4 user in the community Discord who pointed out that Hollister was flying under the radar last week. He’s back from injury, while James O’Shaughnessy was sidelined. He only caught 2-of-6 targets for 15 yards, but he was targeted six times and had the seventh-most air yards among tight ends in Week 3. The Jaguars traded for Dan Arnold, but Hollister should start at least one more week.
Tommy Tremble, Panthers (@ DAL, 28)
Tremble is a player to monitor in deeper formats after the Panthers traded Dan Arnold to the Jaguars. HC Matt Rhule called him this year’s Jeremy Chinn, a standout safety that the Panthers drafted last year. Tremble caught a 30-yard pass and scored a touchdown on a jet sweep in Week 3. The Cowboys gave up 119 yards and a score to the Eagles’ tight ends and yielded 8-90-2 to Rob Gronkowski in Week 1.