Fantasy Football is about winning in the here and now, but it never hurts to have an ace in the hole. When you're victorious you want to start casting an eye toward the playoff run. It's only natural -- you want to be at your best when the games mean the most.
We're in a fun situation this season where there are a lot of late-season stash players you can either pick up off waivers or acquire via trade. If you're winning and you have depth, grabbing a difference-maker could turn your team from a very good one into a downright dominant one.
Let's look over the list of players who could be huge for you in a month or two, along with a handful of players you could cut or pick over them.
A significant note: Anytime you speculate on a player's return you're doing so without certainty. In some of these cases not even the team doctors could confidently say when their players would be back on the field. Every player is different and everyone heals differently. Return dates provided by anyone are merely informed estimates to work with when evaluating.
Andre Brown, RB, Giants
Injury: Broken left leg Return date: Week 10 Owned in: 29 pct.
Last season the Giants trusted Brown in a number of roles, none bigger than as a goal-line back. Brandon Jacobs might determine whether or not he gets that job back and David Wilson might determine what snaps Brown picks up otherwise. Brown does have a good track record as a receiver and pass blocker and could very easily work in a tandem with Jacobs, if not eventually take the lion's share of carries from him. If Brown had a clearer path to getting, say, 70 percent of the snaps, then there would be much more to get excited about here. Expect him to get eased back into games.
Stash him: Week 10
Guys I'd cut for him: Mike Tolbert, Daniel Thomas, Daryl Richardson
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: LeGarrette Blount, Chris Ivory, Donald Brown
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers
Injury: Ankle Return date: Week 9-10 Owned in: 28 pct.
Stewart is eligible to practice and come off the PUP list anytime between now and Week 10. He said already this week he'd like to get in some work with the team before returning to game action, but it isn't crystal clear when he'll actually practice. Stewart admitted he's still dealing with soreness and coach Ron Rivera said Stewart will be re-evaluated after some workouts this week. Once he is given the thumbs-up to play he'll split work with DeAngelo Williams and others. Only twice last season did Stewart have 15-plus touches and only three times did he have over 60 total yards.
Stash him: Week 9, only in deeper leagues
Guys I'd cut for him: Jackie Battle, Jonathan Dwyer
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Michael Bush, Johnathan Franklin, Knile Davis
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots
Injury: Broken wrist Return date: Week 11 Owned in: 55 pct.
Vereen was still in a cast as recently as mid-October but it's not a big deal since he can't come off the short-term IR until Week 9 and the Patriots are on bye in Week 10. What is encouraging is that he's been working off to the side while his teammates practice and could be brought up to speed quickly once doctors clear him. We expect Vereen to see plenty of playing time and be a candidate for at least 80 total yards per week once he comes back, making him the most valuable running back to stash.
Stash him: Week 9
Guys I'd cut for him: Rashard Mendenhall, Jacquizz Rodgers, Willis McGahee, Chris Ivory
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Andre Ellington, Ben Tate, Lamar Miller
David Wilson, RB, Giants
Injury: Neck Return date: Weeks 10-11 Owned in: 90 pct.
Wilson is a pre-emptive listing because we expect owners to start cutting him this week. He hasn't officially been ruled out of the Giants' next two games but reports say he could be out through their bye week. That puts him on track to return at the same time as teammate Andre Brown, giving the Giants a potential three-headed monster. It also means there isn't much in the way of guaranteed snaps for him. The injury has really wrecked his Fantasy value and tough matchups in Weeks 14 and 15 don't help. I wouldn't be sad if I didn't have Wilson on my roster.
Stash him: Week 10
Guys I'd cut for him: Ronnie Brown, LaMichael James, James Starks
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kendall Hunter
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers
Injury: Fractured right leg Return date: Week 15 Owned in: 100 pct.
Drop Cobb? If you need to win now and need the roster space, then yes. If you're on your way to the playoffs, then absolutely not. We suspect we'll see Cobb dropped in a handful of leagues and traded in many more. Cobb had 10 or more Fantasy points in three of his first four games and was well on his way to making it four out of five at Baltimore before the injury. If he's back in Week 15 he'll end the year with games at Dallas, vs. Pittsburgh and at Chicago. Cobb is worth the stash for use in the Fantasy playoffs -- any receiver who doesn't have the potential to help you make the Fantasy playoffs on a consistent basis should be dropped (or traded) for him.
Stash him: Week 7
Guys I'd cut for him: Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Marlon Brown, Terrance Williams, Harry Douglas
Percy Harvin, WR, Seahawks
Injury: Hip Return date: Weeks 8-13 Owned in: 58 pct.
Owners have started to notice Harvin on waivers ever since he started tweeting about his impending return. Coach Pete Carroll said his return is "just around the corner" but we have yet to see Harvin participate in a Seahawks practice. There will probably be a few of those before they put him back on the field. But once Harvin is up to speed and without rust he should be a monster. Lest we forget he averaged just over 10 Fantasy points per week last year and 9.9 points per week in 2011. Seattle's late-season schedule is dandy, making him a must-own for those with an eye toward the playoffs.
Stash him: Week 7
Guys I'd cut for him: Vincent Brown, Ryan Broyles, Santonio Holmes, any Seahawks receiver
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Julian Edelman, Cecil Shorts, Keenan Allen
Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers
Injury: Achilles Return date: Weeks 12-13 Owned in: 58 pct.
Crabtree is the missing piece to the 49ers puzzle. Without him, defenses have been able to contain Vernon Davis or Anquan Boldin. With him, there are too many weapons for any defense to cover. He'll change the direction of the offense and will certainly be a factor late in the season. Of the Niners' final five games only matchups vs. Seattle and at Tampa Bay (Weeks 14 and 15) suggest a bump in the road for Crabtree. I don't know if he'll provide as huge of a boost to your Fantasy team as Cobb or Harvin, but he still carries some value for the end of the year.
Stash him: Week 11
Guys I'd cut for him: Mohamed Sanu, Lance Moore, Leonard Hankerson
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Mike Williams
Owen Daniels, TE, Texans
Injury: Hip Return date: Week 15 Owned in: 58 pct.
Daniels is a fixture in the Texans offense and would likely resume his starting role once he heals up. Who his quarterback will be and what the playoff picture looks like for the team remain very much up in the air. Daniels delivered seven-plus Fantasy points in three of his first four before getting hurt in Week 5. He could be useful but not until late in the year when the Texans finish their schedule against the Colts, Broncos and Titans.
Stash him: Week 15
Guys I'd cut for him: No one right now
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph, Scott Chandler
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Injury: Forearm, back Return date: ??? Owned in: 100 pct.
People have held on to Gronkowski for too long to cut him, but they're not opposed to trading him, especially if it means getting help to salvage a season. It's the owners with an eye toward the playoffs -- thanks to five or six wins -- talking to the Gronk owners about a possible deal. They can afford to be patient while those with 3-3 records might have to go into win-now mode. No one is denying Gronk's ability once he's back on the field, but everyone is doubting when he'll actually be back. The gamble is that he'll help your Fantasy team enough to push it over the top to a title.
Stash him: Week 7
Guys I'd cut for him: Any tight end owned in 90 pct. of leagues or less
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Pretty much any tight end owned in 100 pct. of leagues
Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens
Injury: Hip Return date: Week 14 Owned in: 100 pct.
Once considered out for the year, Pitta has been working by himself at Ravens practices, running and catching balls from a JUGS machine. Earlier this month coach John Harbaugh said he was "pretty impressed" with the progress Pitta has made. The absolute earliest he could come back from short-term injured reserve is Week 9, but a smarter timeline could have him rejoining the Ravens after their Thanksgiving night game vs. Pittsburgh. He's very much under the radar and could be a shrewd addition to Fantasy rosters just before the start of the Fantasy playoffs.
Stash him: Week 12
Guys I'd cut for him: Rob Housler, Zach Miller
Guys I'd rather hang on to for now: Brandon Pettigrew, Tyler Eifert
Another Cam cram
After Week 2 I suggested sitting Cam Newton until he straightened himself out. The very next week he torched the Giants and I wanted to jump off the roof of my office building. Last week I thought Newton would continue to struggle at Minnesota after flopping in Arizona. Instead, Newton totaled four touchdowns against the Vikings, finished as the top quarterback for Week 6 and I wanted to jump off the roof of my office building.
I'm tired of Cam making me want to jump. I want to pinpoint what it takes for him to be a great start in Fantasy.
The first thing that stands out is his wild inconsistency. His Fantasy point totals through the first five games: 14, 20, 34, 6, 36. That gives him an average of 22.0 Fantasy points per game but it also gives his Fantasy owners heartburn. The three 20-plus point games came against pitiful defenses in the Bills, Giants and Vikings. So the matchups seem to matter.
The other consistency in Newton's good games is annoying -- productivity from his inconsistent receivers. Remember when Steve Smith was a must-start Fantasy wideout? Not anymore -- he hasn't had even 70 yards in a game yet this year. When Newton has put up good passing totals he has connected with the likes of Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell, each of whom have come up big in two games and small in three. Greg Olsen has been inconsistent and the running backs have done little to aid Newton (though Mike Tolbert did sneak in a touchdown off a shovel pass from Newton last week). Identifying which receivers will be good for the Panthers each week is a borderline guessing game but knowing which defenses give up the most Fantasy points on average to receivers should help. The Bills, Giants and Vikings have given up on average at least 20 Fantasy points per week to receivers, while the Cardinals and Seahawks are among the Top 10 in fewest Fantasy points allowed to wideouts.
And why is knowing Newton's receivers' forecasts an important factor? Because he's not rushing as much as we'd like. Through five games, Newton has 29 attempts for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Last year he had 40 carries for 209 yards and three touchdowns through five starts.
There's a philosophical change in how Newton operates and it's based on him being a better short-area passer. That's what I've noticed about him -- he's currently on pace to finish with much fewer 20-yard pass plays than he had in each of his first two seasons. Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com wrote a really nice review of Newton and partially blames the Panthers coaching staff for his early-season troubles (I'd throw in O-line woes too). It's that coaching staff that likely has reeled in Newton the runner in favor of Newton the passer.
So add it up and it comes down to either starting him blindly because "he's a stud" or feeling comfortable with his matchups from week to week.
If you're into the matchups then consider this week's game vs. the Rams. They were pretty dominant at Houston last week: When Matt Schaub was in the game they pressured him seven times, hit him after a throw once and sacked him three times before knocking him out. They also have five interceptions on the year.
But the matchup favors Newton if we're checking the metric consistent with Newton's success. The Rams rank 24th in Fantasy points allowed to receivers and have yielded two scores to wideouts in three of six games. They also have struggled with quarterbacks -- Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo have done well against them while Colin Kaepernick, the Jaguars' guys and the Texans' guys have struggled. The Rams do well against the bad quarterbacks and poorly against the good quarterbacks.
I'd start Newton this week.
Fantasy & Reality
Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) from around the league.
Fantasy: Trent Richardson cannot be an effective rusher. I know the Colts lost on Monday and I know Richardson stunk for Fantasy purposes, but that seemed to be a byproduct of the game more than anything else. Richardson had 10 carries and looked good on many of them, running with physicality and showing some burst. It's a welcomed sight after his otherwise crummy start with the Colts. I'd trade for him on the cheap.
Reality: Justin Blackmon is a No. 1 Fantasy receiver. There's nothing I dislike about Blackmon. Even his team and his quarterback (for now) are fine with me. Blackmon is dominating and playing from behind every week is just icing on the cake. If Blackmon averages just 67.4 yards per game the rest of the way then he'll top 1,000 yards. That's pretty cool considering he was suspended for the first four games of the year. Selling high on him is an option to be sure but it better be an offer that helps your team win now if you're giving up on Blackmon.
Fantasy: Frank Gore will break down this year. I'll admit I was very nervous about drafting Gore back in August because of his career workload, not his age. I should have chillaxed. Gore has posted 10 or more Fantasy points in five of six games, the lone whiff coming at Seattle, which was predictable. It's all systems go for him the rest of the way.
Reality: The Lions' goal-line package is among the best in the NFL. The Lions are already scoring in goal-to-go situations at a 100 percent clip (seven touchdowns, two field goals). They're doing it because of the diverse lineup they use down there: Calvin Johnson on one side, giant rookie tight end Joseph Fauria on the other, Joique Bell or Reggie Bush in the backfield and Matthew Stafford willing to dive in. That's a lot of assets for a defense to cover. I'd expect the Lions to keep pouring on the points.
Bonus Reality: Giant tight ends could be the next big thing. When it comes to copycatting, the NFL is right there with Kindergarteners. It happens all the time. When Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski broke on the scene as jumbo-sized tight ends, teams started looking for guys to use like them. Many teams have guys like them, some more successful than others. But that's where guys like Fauria and Falcons rookie tight end Levine Toilolo have a chance.
Fauria is especially on my radar because of the uptick in playing time we saw in Week 6. The Lions not only used him near the goal line, they used him on the first play of the game on their own 20-yard line! He worked 31 percent of the snaps, but many as a blocker first and a receiver second. The more comfortable the coaches get with him as a receiver the sooner he'll be a smash hit for Fantasy. For now he's no better than a goal-line back, though with the Lions' goal-to-go success he could be a very handy one-week option for those missing Graham.
Other tight ends with a chance to break out down the line, though they'll need some breaks: Tyler Eifert (we're still waiting, Cincinnati!), Gavin Escobar and James Hanna in Dallas, Zach Ertz in Philadelphia (there are rumors he's close), Ladarius Green in San Diego, Luke Willson in Seattle and Jordan Reed in Washington (another player close to breaking out).