I get a lot of tweets.
And they are almost always questions. Whom to start, whom to sit, why am I such an idiot? Though in fairness, the last one is usually just from Field.
But this was different.
It wasn’t a question.
It was a statement.
And a request.
@jamespjennings wrote: “Pretty sure this is my last year playing Fantasy Football. Talk me out of it, @matthewberrytmr.”
I don’t know why, but this tweet really spoke to me. No complaining from Jim, no anger, just defeat. Sadness. As if the fight had been knocked out of him for the final time. But with his last ounce of hope, he reached out. It seemed like he could no longer pull himself up off the mat, but, as he extended a virtual hand, could I?
I called him soon after.
Jim Jennings, it turns out, is a guy with a pretty great life. He’ll be 34 next month, happily married to his wife, Ryanne, and they have two great kids: Desmond (8) and Maggie (4). A huge soccer fan, he lives in the small town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and has a job he loves, working in digital marketing for a yoga tech company.
As far as I could tell during our call, he really has only one problem:
His fantasy football team.
They’re 0-3 and that’s not the worst part.
The worst part, he told me, is he expected it. His team name, he explained, is Last Place Guaranteed.
It’s not an ironic name.
He truly expects to finish last.
Because he always does.
Jim has been playing for a decade now and his teams are always near the bottom and never in the hunt. He doesn’t understand why. He’s tried everything. He’s tried being super-active, constantly tinkering. That didn’t work. He’s tried being super-casual, just leaving his lineup as is, not making many moves, going with the flow. That didn’t work, either.
It’s not that he doesn’t know football. He’s a die-hard Eagles fan and has followed them forever.
It’s not that he doesn’t understand fantasy. He has played and won his fantasy baseball league. He did really well in fantasy Premier League as well when he used to play that.
It’s just fantasy football.
He’s currently in only one league, the “Sideline Syndicate,” a 10-team, half-point PPR league with an extra flex and no kicker, with a bunch of his colleagues.
And, he says, “Every week, without fail, I make the wrong move.”
It starts at the draft, he tells me. He never gets a high draft pick, so he always feels like he’s chasing running backs in the draft and he never gets one of the truly elite ones. And then his in-season roster management always seems to be off.
It’s not as if he isn’t trying. He really is. He researches and reads. Maybe too much.
“There’s just so much information out there,” he said, “I read this and then I read that, and I don’t know what to do.” Head of customer service and league commissioner Page Olver tells him he tinkers too much.
Tinkering too much and just some bad luck certainly seem to be the culprit this season. In Week 1, he left DeSean Jackson (31.4) and Sammy Watkins (42.3 points) on his bench. In Week 2, Last Place Guaranteed lost by a few points as they faced the Patriots defense and their 35-point performance.
And then this past week he lost to Maxx, the eighth-grade son of CEO Todd Wolfenberg.
It’s not that he lost to a kid (though that didn’t help). It was how he lost. He had started Watkins, who in a game where Patrick Mahomes threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns managed just 64 toothless yards. That his Chris Godwin did nothing while Maxx’s Mike Evans went off against him with three touchdowns.
And speaking of tinkering too much, Jim benched Joe Mixon for Raheem Mostert in Week 3, and as he watched former practice-squad guy Jeff Wilson Jr. score two touchdowns instead of his guy, thus killing his comeback hopes, he just lost it.
He was at his tipping point. He was done with Last Place Guaranteed. He was quitting fantasy football.
He just didn’t see any way he could win.
He’s been playing for a decade and he’s never won a fantasy football league.
He’s never even made the playoffs in a fantasy football league.
His proudest achievement to date was not finishing last this past year, because last place had to clean the company car.
So he was done. Unless, as he tweeted, I could talk him out of it.
And I told him what I will tell everyone out there who is 0-3 or 1-2 and not feeling great about your team. What I will tell anyone who drafted Saquon Barkley or Tyreek Hill. Or those who bypassed production at RB or WR to draft Hunter Henry or O.J. Howard in the fourth or fifth round. Those who regret their early pick of Todd Gurley II or James Conner when Dalvin Cook was just sitting there. Or anyone who is sitting there with a good team, but has had the most points scored against them in his/her league. Or those who listened to some moron on ESPN last week who, ahem, “loved” Stefon Diggs.
I get it.
I totally get it.
I’ve been there. We all have.
I’m in 16 leagues this year, so I experience some sort of regret or frustration every week. The Bitter Berry puppet on The Fantasy Show on ESPN+ didn’t just come out of thin air, you know?
(By the way, 16 is by far the most leagues I’ve ever played in and for me, with work and kids, it’s just way too much. I have to cut way back next year.)
So I feel you, Jim.
But you asked me to talk you out of it, so here goes.
When we spoke on the phone, I asked you what drew you to fantasy football in the first place. You told me it was something fun to do with your buddies in college. That as a Philly fan you used to watch only the Eagles, but that you love football and fantasy has made you much more knowledgeable about the league as a whole and gives you a rooting interest in a lot of other games. You enjoy the work league you are in, the banter and trash talk around the office, the wild trade talks that go on. The way that it gives you an excuse to interact with people in the company that your job normally doesn’t bring you in contact with.
Look, fantasy football, specifically season-long fantasy football, isn’t just about winning. Sure, it’s more fun when we win, but this is for enjoyment. A hobby. A game we play. And often times, it’s much more than a game. It’s a connective tissue that holds a group together, something that is becoming increasingly difficult these days with every device possible going off at every minute. I’ve seen it save lives, inspire romance, make strangers into lifelong friends, be an escape, bring out the best in people and redefine what a family means.
It’s a secret language and special bond that only those who play the game understand, and it’s not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
Which is why the feeling when you’ve won is so great. You’ve overcome holdouts and injuries, poor performances and bad schedule luck. You’ve navigated the waiver wire, traded shrewdly and managed to make a lot more correct start/sit decisions than not. I loved the line in “Avengers: Endgame” where Tony Stark says, “Part of the journey is the end.” And I think about that here, Jim. Everything you’ve gone through is part of the journey. But unlike Tony, you haven’t gotten to the end yet. You’ve just been stuck in the middle too long.
I don’t want you to quit. I believe you’ll miss the fun and banter of the league at work. And soon, when your kids are a little bit older, you’ll find that playing in a league with them is one of the greatest things in the world.
At the start of every fantasy football season, I always make a plea in my Draft-Day Manifesto to invite at least one person who has never played to join a league. I’m trying to increase our numbers, so I definitely don’t want to lose one.
And I think the way we accomplish that, the best way I talk you out of it, Jim, is for you to experience winning. So I’m going to do whatever I can to help make that happen. I follow you on Twitter now and my DMs are open to you, 24/7. You told me your only goal was just to not finish last. We are going to aim higher than that.
And the first thing we are doing, dammit, is changing the team name.
Let’s get to it.
As always, this is not a start-or-sit column. I don’t “love” or “hate” players. I do, however, “love” or “hate” their ESPN projection for PPR leagues. So that’s what this is. Players who are “loves” are players I believe will generally meet or exceed their ESPN projections. “Hates” are players I believe will fall short of their ESPN projections. That simple. For specific “this player or that player” questions, please consult my rankings, which are constantly updated all the way through Sunday at kickoff. You also can watch The Fantasy Show on ESPN+, which expanded to four episodes a week this year, and of course Fantasy Football Now, every Sunday morning on ESPN2. Thank you as always to “Thirsty” Kyle Soppe of the 06010 podcast and the Stat-a-pillar from The Fantasy Show on ESPN+, Damian Dabrowski, for their help at various points in this column.
Here we go:
Quarterbacks I love in Week 4
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (vs. Eagles; ESPN projection: 18.2 points): For people worried about Rodgers, please remember he has played Chicago, Minnesota and Denver, three very tough defenses. Things should get a lot better Thursday night against an Eagles secondary that has given up at least 320 passing yards six times in its past 10 games, including to Case Keenum and Matt Ryan this season. The Eagles have a good run defense, so the way to attack them is through the air, where only three teams in the NFL have given up more passing yards per game than the Birds. By the way, want a fun weird note that means nothing? Rodgers has four games of four or more TD passes in Week 4 during his career (no other week can claim that).
Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (vs. Buccaneers; ESPN projection: 17.6 points): Forget “road Ben,” have you met “home Jared”? Goff’s weird home/road splits have been very Roethlisberger-esque since the start of 2018. Goff has scored 18-plus fantasy points nine times, and eight of them have come at home. During that stretch, he averages 24.4 PPG at home and just 13.3 PPG on the road. Goff was on the “hate” list last week — and he did, in fact, finish below his ESPN projection — because of his struggles with pressure. Well, even with the efforts of NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett, the Bucs still create pressure at a below-average rate this season despite blitzing at the third-highest rate. Todd Bowles has done a good job with this defense, especially when you consider what he has to work with, but it won’t be enough on Sunday and Goff will pick up where Danny Dimes left off last week.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants (vs. Redskins; ESPN projection: 18.3 points): Speaking of Danny Dimes, the good times should keep rolling in his home debut as a starter against my Redskins team that has allowed all three QBs they have faced this season to complete better than 70% of their passes with three touchdown passes. Playing aggressively (9.45 air yards per target), Jones looked like the real deal despite playing 61.7% of his offensive snaps in Week 3 without Saquon Barkley (for those worried his production might falter without his star running back). I love this stat: There have been only six QBs in the past 15 years to have a game with at least 330 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns: Aaron Rodgers (twice), Deshaun Watson, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Russell Wilson … and Danny Dimes in his NFL starting debut.
Kyle Allen, Carolina Panthers (vs. Texans; ESPN projection: 15.3 points): A top-seven QB in each of his starts in the NFL, Allen’s results should have the Panthers encouraging Cam Newton to take as long as possible to come back from injury. Allen was only one of three QBs last week to average 8-plus air yards per pass attempt while being on target with at least 86% of his passes (Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan were the other two), and now he gets a nice matchup against a Texans squad that allows opponents to complete 70.5% of passes (seventh highest) and is bottom 10 in passing yards allowed.
Others receiving votes: Matthew Stafford, who quietly has six touchdowns in three games, will certainly have to keep throwing to keep up with the Chiefs on Sunday in a game with the highest over/under of the week. … If T.Y. Hilton plays, I expect Jacoby Brissett to be usable against a Raiders team that gives up 9.2 yards per pass attempt (third highest) and creates pressure at the lowest rate in the NFL. … It has most certainly not been pretty, but don’t look now, the 11th-best QB in fantasy through three weeks is … wait for it … Case Keenum. Now, Keenum didn’t practice Wednesday, so stay tuned, but whoever is under center for the Skins on Sunday should put up points against a Giants defense that just resurrected Jameis Winston.
Quarterbacks I hate in Week 4
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (vs. Patriots; ESPN projection: 16.9 points): Currently the ninth-best QB in fantasy, Allen has a real test on his hands Sunday against a Patriots defense that has yet to give up a TD pass and leads the NFL with six interceptions. In addition to the tough matchup, volume could be an issue, as New England ranks second in time of possession this season. And that’s important because volume is one of things helping Allen this season. The Bills rank fifth in time of possession, allowing Allen to rank third in QB opportunities (pass attempts + rush attempts).
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns (at Ravens; ESPN projection: 15.2 points): It has been bad. No two ways about it. Mayfield is the first player since 2007 to throw at least 35 passes without throwing multiple touchdown passes in each of his team’s first three games to open a season. I love him as a player and believe he will eventually get it turned around, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Ravens are top five in both blitz and pressure percentage this season, and as anyone who saw Mayfield run around behind that shaky offensive against the Rams on Sunday night knows he struggles under pressure. In their past 23 home games, the Ravens have given up only 11.8 fantasy PPG to QBs. Gimme the under on an already-low 15.2.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at Rams; ESPN projection: 16.6 points): The Winston giveth, the Winston taketh away. Hope I’m wrong, but this feels like a bad Winston week. A cross-country trip to face a Rams team that has the fifth-lowest completion percentage against (57.8%), the fourth-fewest yards per pass attempt (5.84) and is one of three teams yet to allow multiple TD passes in a game (New England and Green Bay being the others). Given Winston’s penchant for turnovers and a leaky offensive line, I expect Wade Phillips to be aggressive going after Winston. The Rams’ ranking of third best in terms of fewest fantasy points allowed to opposing QBs appears to be safe for another week.
Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears (vs. Vikings; ESPN projection: 13.9 points): It’s one thing to be solid against my Redskins, it’s another thing entirely against the Vikings. Minnesota is seventh or better in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per catch, deep completion percentage against, preventing yards after the catch and scoring defense. Trubisky averaged 12.5 points against the Vikings last season and that was thanks to 23.6% of his points coming with his legs. He’s not running this season so far and I’m not even starting him in my deep, two-QB league.
Running backs I love in Week 4
Mark Ingram II, Baltimore Ravens (vs. Browns; ESPN projection: 14.7 points): A no-brainer start, I’m taking the over on his already-high projection. Already with five rushing scores this season, Ingram is averaging 5.98 yards per carry in Baltimore’s high-octane offense. Derrick Henry, another bruising back without much passing-game involvement, abused the Browns in Week 1 to the tune of 28 points. With the Ravens as a touchdown favorite at home, I like Ingram’s chances for a nice game as Baltimore salts it away in the second half.
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Bengals; ESPN projection: 16.6 points): The 25th-best running back in fantasy so far, Conner has been a massive disappointment to those who drafted him in the first round (raises hand). And while the Steelers’ offense is still figuring how to operate in the Mason Rudolph era, things get a lot better for Conner on Monday night at home against the Bengals, a bottom-seven defense this season in terms of scoring, yards per play, rush yards allowed and yards per carry. Cincy also allows the sixth-most yards per carry before first contact, something that should help boost Conner behind the (oddly) struggling offensive line of Pittsburgh.
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks (at Cardinals; ESPN projection: 14.1 points): Another recent disappointment, this is a bit risky, as Rashaad Penny might come back this week and if Carson has one more fumble he might never get on the field again. That said, Carson never fumbled in college and lost only two in the NFL prior to this season, so I believe the issue can be corrected. Against a Cardinals team that has given up the fourth-most red zone drives this season, expect Carson to get into the end zone against Arizona’s 30th-ranked run defense and with the Seahawks a 4.5-point road favorite.
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts (vs. Raiders; ESPN projection: 14.9 points): Featuring one of the best offensive lines in football and wanting to ease Jacoby Brissett into his new role, the Colts have become the league’s fourth-run-heaviest offense this season. With T.Y. Hilton probably at less than 100 percent, expect the Colts to lean on Mack, who already leads the NFL in rushing attempts. The Raiders are 11th worst in the NFL in most fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs and are 7-point underdogs on the road.
Others receiving votes: Given how strong Buffalo is against the run and the Patriots’ loss of James Develin, this feels like a James White game against the Bills. White is averaging 15.9 points per game against the Bills in his past three, and Buffalo is one of only four teams in the NFL to have already allowed multiple receiving touchdowns to opposing running backs. … I’m as surprised as you are, but Carlos Hyde has been responsible for more than 70% of the Texans’ running back carries this season. He has some flex appeal in what should be a close game against Carolina’s bottom-eight run defense. … With Melvin Gordon probably back as the starter in Week 5 for the Chargers, this is the last week for Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson to ball out. Ekeler’s a no-brainer of course, but Jackson should be flex-worthy for the Saquon Barkley managers who missed the rush to get Wayne Gallman. The Dolphins have been run on a league-high 115 times this season, resulting in a league-high six rushing TDs while giving up 5.43 yards per carry (second highest). As a 15.5-point favorite, the Bolts will have plenty of junk time in the second half for Jackson to get some work.
Running backs I hate in Week 4
Sony Michel, New England Patriots (at Bills; ESPN projection: 9.0 points): As we discussed on the Fantasy Focus Football podcast earlier this week and mentioned above in the James White section, the loss of fullback James Develin really hurts Michel here, which is not good considering his struggles already this season. He has been the worst RB after first contact this season (0.73 yards per carry after first contact) and just 15.6% of his carries have gained at least five yards this season, dead last of the 38 RBs with at least 25 carries. Also, he has yet to catch a pass this season and the Patriots are using Rex Burkhead a lot more, in addition to White. Add to that the Bills’ eighth-best run defense and the low projected total for this one (42 points), and it’s easy to see why he’s projected for just 9.0 points. I’m not going under that, because there’s always a chance he falls into the end zone, but I’m looking for other options if possible this week.
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears (at Vikings; ESPN projection: 12.1 points): Given his uneven usage so far this season, it’s hard to get excited about him against the Vikings. Minnesota has put at least seven men in the box for 70% of opponent rushes this season (NFL average: 56.4%). That is among the reasons the Vikes are seventh in rush TD percentage (one TD on 70 carries), eighth in yards per play allowed and ninth in fewest fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs. He’s a cross-your-fingers-and-hope flex play in Week 4.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons (vs. Titans; ESPN projection: 13.6 points): He got all the work in Week 3 after Ito Smith left early because of a concussion and neither Brian Hill nor Qadree Ollison active, but given the first two weeks he’s unlikely to get that amount of work again. He did look better last week, I’ll give him that, but I want the under on 13.6 facing a Titans team that has given up only one rushing TD on 74 attempts (1.35%) this season. Despite facing Nick Chubb, Marlon Mack and Leonard Fournette this season, the Titans are still 10th best in terms of fewest fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs.
Pass catchers I love in Week 4
Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (vs. Eagles; ESPN projection: 16.7 points): Obviously anyone who has him is starting him, but putting this here to say that if you have him, don’t panic (he’s still getting a 26% target share). And if you don’t have him, your last chance to buy low is likely between when you read this and kickoff Thursday night. The Packers have played Chicago, Minnesota and Denver. The schedule gets easier, starting Thursday night against a Philly team has allowed the fourth-most passing yards (881) and has allowed at least 24 points in all three games this season.
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins (at Giants; ESPN projection: 13.4 points): Michael Thomas. Odell Beckham Jr. DeAndre Hopkins. Sorry, just naming some of the players with fewer fantasy points than McLaurin, the first player in NFL history with five catches and a receiving TD in each of his first three NFL games. He has a 50% end zone target share and a 30% red zone target share on a team that will continue to have to throw while in negative game script (Washington is passing 78.8% of the time when trailing, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL). No team has been worse against the pass this season than the Giants.
Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals (at Steelers; ESPN projection: 14.4 points): Death, taxes and you start your slot receivers against the Steelers. Boyd now has three straight games with at least 10 targets (he had just three 10-target games all of 2018) and he ranks fourth in receptions through three weeks. Opponents are 35-for-40 for 530 yards and 4 TDs to the slot vs. the Steelers this season, and as a road underdog with a struggling run game, expect Cincy to keep throwing on Monday night.
Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (at Cardinals; ESPN projection: 15.4 points): A legit WR1 now, Lockett continues his fantasy rock star ways getting to face a Cardinals team that has allowed the second-most slot completions and is tied for the most slot touchdowns allowed this season. Opponents have thrown deep on the Cardinals 31 times (second most), cashing in with four deep TDs (third most). Giddy up.
Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders (at Colts; ESPN projection: 13 points): Across all positions, only Keenan Allen has more receptions this season than Waller the Baller. A top-three tight end play for me (over Mark Andrews and Zach Ertz) this week, he should be in your flex if you happen to have Kelce or Engram. Waller is receiving an insane target share (30.2%) and averaging 10-10.5 yards per catch in all three games this season. This is a great matchup against a banged-up Colts secondary that allows the sixth-most points to tight ends, and a game in which the Raiders should be trailing.
Others receiving votes: It’s always awkward talking about the Thursday night game, because many people read this column Friday, and when you whiff on the Thursday night game and people are reading it Friday already seeing a brutal pick, it’s like … ughhhhhhhhhh. But YOLO. You know I’m on Rodgers and Adams tonight, so gimme some Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who seems to have clearly won the WR2 job for the Pack. The Eagles are tied with the Redskins for most TD passes of 40 or more yards allowed this season (three), and MVS is responsible for the only two GB receptions of 40-plus yards this season. He’s been targeted on 25.3% of routes thus far. … You know I’m a Kyle Allen believer, so it makes sense I’m on DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel as WR3s with upside against the Texans’ pass defense, which ranks in the lower third of the league. … Devin Smith was on the field for 91% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps last week, only Patrick Mahomes has more deep touchdown passes this year than Dak Prescott, and the Saints are allowing the third-most yards per play this season. … Will Dissly is the only tight end with multiple end zone receptions this season, he is available in 48% of ESPN leagues and faces an Arizona team that has allowed five touchdowns to tight ends in three games.
Pass-catchers I hate in Week 4
Josh Gordon, New England Patriots (at Bills; ESPN projection: 12.8 points): So far this season, the Patriots have had 72.7% of snaps with 3 or more WRs on the field. And going three-wide seems to be hurting Gordon’s opportunities. New England has three deep touchdowns this season (more than 15 yards downfield), and they’ve gone to Phillip Dorsett and Antonio Brown. The Bills have the fifth-lowest opponent deep completion rate (31.3%), and in Gordon’s career as a Patriot more than half of his fantasy points have come via the deep ball.
John Brown, Buffalo Bills (vs. Patriots; ESPN projection: 10.9 points): At least I’m consistent. Josh Allen is on the hate list this week, so it stands to reason I believe his No. 1 target will fall below expectations. With an expected shadow from Stephon Gilmore, it’s hard to see a big game from Brown. Opponents are just 5-for-27 when throwing deep against New England this season with 0 TDs and 3 INTs.
DJ Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars (at Denver; ESPN projection: 11.4 points): Chark is the No. 8 wide receiver in fantasy through three weeks, but I’m taking the under on the road against the Broncos. Denver is tied for the fifth-fewest red zone drives allowed this season, and touchdowns have been a big part of Chark’s fantasy value to this point. Chark will likely see a decent amount of Chris Harris Jr. in this one, too. I love Gardner Minshew as much as the next mustache, but I’m taking the under for his favorite receiver.
Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints (vs. Cowboys; ESPN projection: 7.5 points): A funny thing happened on the way to becoming the next coming of Jimmy Graham. Cook has just five catches in three games and he has zero red zone targets. His 12.2% target share is just 16th among tight ends and, oh yeah, he lost his starting QB to injury. The Cowboys aren’t a terrible matchup, but nothing about the QB play or Cook’s usage so far this season can make you feel anything other than nervous.
Matthew Berry — the Talented Mr. Roto — had Jim pick up Danny Dimes and start him this week. Just so you know whom we are all rooting for.