This year’s NFL is one loaded with uncertainty, and ripe with opportunity. With so many stars waning, the curtain is rising for a new class. The next generation of perennial Pro Bowlers starts today. This is what’s best about the NFL, and what separates it from the other sports. The parity and the stream of electric young talent is unending. What tomorrow’s Hall of Famers possess is unlike anything seen in past generations. The positions are specializing and the body types continue to evolve. Will the new model of defense be based on the Giants’ Nascar defensive line, or the too-tall Legion of Boom secondary? For redraft owners, 2014 championships will be won in free agency. For keeper and dynasty leagues, keep your finger on the pulse of this sea change, or be left picking up the pieces. As week six begins for fantasy football leagues, here are some thoughts on the top waiver claims to pick up.
Branden Oliver (owned in 13 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Ryan Mathews sprained his MCL in week two, and is likely to return around week eight. In the following game, Danny Woodhead broke his leg, and will miss the remainder of the year. Of all 2013 running backs, only Pierre Thomas caught more passes (77) than Woodhead (76). For the final eight weeks of last season, Ryan Mathews led the NFL in carries (168) and was second only to LeSean McCoy (830) with 775 yards. During Woodhead’s last game in week three, Donald Brown assumed the starting role, and was trusted with 36 (yes, 36) touches that day. He may have produced a paltry 89 yards against Buffalo’s number one run defense, but the volume speaks, well, volumes. Enter rookie Branden Oliver, who was able to dominate the preseason with 35 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown. That was enough to leapfrog 6th round draft pick Marion Grice, who was later waived by San Diego on September 1. Brown suffered a concussion Sunday, allowing Oliver to take over lead duties for the afternoon. Against the Jets’ sixth-best run defense, Oliver used 23 touches to produce 182 yards and two scores. Ready to believe?
Ronnie Hillman (owned in 7 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Over the first three games, former Wisconsin standout Montee Ball was averaging 18.7 touches for 57.3 total yards and 0.3 scores per game. In the red zone, Ball had amassed 10 carries, where no other Bronco had a single attempt. During Sunday’s blowout victory over the Cardinals, Ball fell to the ground while running alone at the beginning of a wheel route. A solid diagnosis is still pending for his apparent groin injury. Should the starter miss any time, there is a lot of value available as the goal line back for Peyton Manning‘s record-setting offense. Playing in relief Sunday, backup Ronnie Hillman rushed 15 times for 64 yards, while Juwan Thompson poached an 8-yard red zone touchdown carry. Owners in need of running back help have several good options this week, and this could be a good short-term fix.
Tim Wright (owned in 9 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Second-year tight end Tim Wright was acquired through a controversial trade with the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay also sent a 2015 fourth-round pick and got six-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins in return. Last year, Wright made 54 receptions for 571 yards and five scores, while starting just eight games. The former Rutgers player (a familiar tune for Patriots fans) is now with the struggling Patriots offense in dire need of weapons. On Sunday Night Football, the 6-foot-4 tight end caught five passes for 85 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter. Is Wright the next Aaron Hernandez? Baby steps. Give peace a chance, and give Wright a shot as well.
Brandon LaFell (owned in 7 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Through four years in Carolina, Brandon LaFell caught 167 passes for 2,385 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has yet to eclipse 50 catches or 700 yards in his young NFL career. Approaching his fifth professional season, New England signed the free agent on March 15, amidst reports the Panthers had begun negotiating his second contract. For just $9 million over three years, the 6-foot-3 receiver has the opportunity to produce on an admittedly needy Tom Brady offense. “We’re trying to figure out a lot of things on offense,” the quarterback said last week. “We have who we have. That’s the way it goes.” So far this season, LaFell has 11 receptions for 185 yards and a touchdown. His best game was week four in Kansas City, when he made six grabs for 119 yards and a score. A lot of opportunity exists on the New England offense that just put up 41 points on Cincinnati, who entered the game as the league’s stingiest scoring defense.
Odell Beckham Jr. (owned in 11 percent of Yahoo leagues)
In his NFL debut Sunday, Odell Beckham Jr. made four receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown. The score came on a 15-yard pass from Eli Manning, to give the Giants a fourth-quarter lead over Atlanta. In his final college season, the rookie from LSU made 59 receptions for 1,152 yards and eight touchdowns. There are currently eight former LSU wide receivers in the NFL. Three are starters (Rueben Randle, Dwayne Bowe, and Brandon LaFell), while the rest are in reserve (Beckham, Trindon Holliday, Jarvis Landry, Russell Shepard, James Wright). It’s notable that three of these former Tigers are on the Giants: Beckham, Randle, and Holliday. Bowe has earned three 1,000 yard seasons in eight years. The remaining seven players have finished 11 combined seasons, with the biggest production coming from LaFell’s 677 yards in 2012. Hopefully the third time’s the charm for New York, who selected Beckham 12th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Antone Smith (owned in 8 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Antone Smith is such an unknown commodity in the NFL, it’s easy to mistake him for one of the hot rookies. But the former Florida State player has been doing it for years. That is if, by doing it, you mean he’s been buried on the Falcons roster since 2010. For his first three seasons, Smith had rushed once for a loss of three yards. Three years later, he was trusted with the ball five times over an eight-game span. Of those attempts, the 5-foot-9 back put together carries of 8, 50, 38, 11, and 38 yards. This is the part of the article to remind you the Falcons’ leading rusher in 2013 was Steven Jackson, with 543 yards. Fast forward another year, and the Falcons official depth chart lists Jackson atop the backfield, followed by Jacquizz Rodgers (332 yards in 2013), and then Smith. Their logic is as elusive as this fifth-year back. Through five weeks, the shunned back has rushed 11 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns, while making six receptions for another 156 yards and two more scores. When head coach Mike Smith decides to put on his glasses, there may be a bright future staring back at him.
Andre Williams (owned in 25 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Opportunity came knocking for a couple Giants this past Sunday. Starting running back Rashad Jennings sprained his MCL in the game, and will miss at least two games. New York’s next two games are against the Cowboys and Eagles, whose rush defenses rank 20th and 24th, respectively. Over the last two games, Williams has rushed 35 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns. The rookie from Boston College has an opportunity to harness the starting role while Jennings recovers. Don’t lose sight that Tom Coughlin was once the head coach for Boston College; he surely hasn’t.
Joseph Randle (owned in 2 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Dallas backup rushers have to be ready at a moment’s notice. DeMarco Murray has started 31 games in his first three seasons, which means there were 17 games that he did not start. Obvious statistics aside, Murray is on pace for 416 carries, which would tie Larry Johnson for most in NFL history. Only five times have rushers surpassed 400 carries (Johnson, Jamaal Anderson, James Wilder, Eric Dickerson, Eddie George), and the writing’s on the wall about whether Murray’s legs can survive it. Though the Cowboys’ official depth chart lists Lance Dunbar as backup, Randle has been spelling Murray in recent weeks. Over the last four games, Randle has rushed 11 times for 61 yards. Randle and Dunbar each have one red zone carry this season, compared with Murray’s 14. The point of focus should be on the Cowboys’ top-ranked rush offense (160.0 yards per game), who have also run more often than any other team (32.6 attempts per game). No one should root for injury, but if and when Murray misses action again, the owner of a Dallas running back will be a very happy one indeed. Get in on the ground floor.
Past targets include Khiry Robinson, Larry Donnell, Knile Davis, Terrance Williams, Travis Kelce, Rueben Randle, Jerick McKinnon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, Owen Daniels, Eddie Royal, Allen Hurns, Blake Bortles, Jordan Matthews, John Brown, Alfred Blue, Donald Brown, Andrew Hawkins, Niles Paul, Bobby Rainey, Kirk Cousins, Shonn Greene, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell, and Benny Cunningham, among others. Check out waiver wire targets from Week 5, Week 4, Week 3 and Week 2.
Stats and data courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, footballguys.com, and espn.com.