Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It's the rare backfield by committee that is actually a good thing for fantasy managers. Every Tuesday, we'll ask our NFL Nation reporters a series of burning questions to help inform your waiver-wire pickups and roster decisions.
This was a big week for those borderline WR3 candidates rostered in about 40-80% of ESPN leagues. DJ Chark Jr., Jerry Jeudy, Christian Kirk, Curtis Samuel and John Brown all hit season highs with at least 99 receiving yards.
But which of these guys can you trust to keep this up going forward? As always, our team reporters are here to help.
DJ Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars
Rookie quarterback Jake Luton proved to be a boon to Chark's fantasy prospects while filling in for injured starter Gardner Minshew. Chark ended a skid of three straight quiet performances by catching seven passes for 146 yards -- including a 73-yard TD. It was Chark's first 100-yard game of the season and his first TD since Week 4.
"Luton has a better arm than Minshew. And, more importantly, he's a little more willing to let it rip and take more downfield shots," Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco said. "Minshew was reluctant to try that as much, partly because he was uncomfortable in the pocket and bailed out early, but also because he was overly concerned with avoiding turnovers. I don't think that Chark will put up big numbers every week, but the possibility of a big play down the field is always there with him. And with Luton on the field for at least one more week, I'd definitely consider starting him in my lineup this Sunday."
Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
The Broncos' first-round draft pick had by far his best game Sunday with seven catches for 125 yards and a TD on 14 targets against the Atlanta Falcons. Jeudy's previous bests were five catches in Week 3 and 73 receiving yards on four catches and 10 targets in Week 8. But Jeudy had been building up to this big performance, according to Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold.
"I think Jeudy's targets from the start, even with three different quarterbacks this season, have been the good indicator," Legwold said. "He leads the team with 61 after eight games, 15 more than tight end Noah Fant. Drew Lock threw an off-balance interception Sunday because he said he would throw to Jeudy in that same situation '10 out of 10 times.' So he's going to see the ball the rest of the way.
"And he's finding the rhythm in his route running -- which is advanced way beyond his years. And where he was pressing in some situations early in the season because he wanted to make a play so badly, he's now finishing those plays."
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals speedster has now scored 20-plus PPR fantasy points in three straight games and 10-plus fantasy points in five straight games after catching five passes for 123 yards and a TD Sunday against Miami. He now has six TD catches in that five-game stretch. But he is still just 52.7% rostered because he has not reached double-digit targets once all season.
"I think [Kirk's opportunities will] ebb and flow based on how many targets and how open DeAndre Hopkins is," Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss said. "When safeties start to leak over to Hopkins' side, which they've been doing weekly, then Kirk will continue to be open. The question then becomes: At what point do they put extra attention on Kirk, which may leave Hopkins open because a defense has to account for Kyler Murray as a runner too? But my guess is that of those three, Kirk is last on a defense's list of priorities. So it'd be safe to think he'll have more of these five-catch, 123-yard days. Coach Kliff Kingsbury will continue to utilize Kirk's speed as long as he can."
Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' versatile receiver/runner is still rostered in only 42.2% of ESPN leagues -- in part because it seemed like his role might diminish once Christian McCaffrey returned to the lineup. Instead, Samuel caught nine passes on nine targets for 105 yards and a TD against the Kansas City Chiefs. And he now ranks sixth in PPR fantasy points among WRs in ESPN leagues over the past three weeks, thanks to his two receiving TDs and two rushing TDs.
"Because Samuel has become such a threat in the red zone as either a running back, a receiver running routes or a receiver running the end around, he should remain valuable," Panthers reporter David Newton said. "If McCaffrey is sidelined again, this time with a shoulder injury, it will increase Samuel's likelihood of production at multiple positions."
Meanwhile, Newton said it would be hard to make a case to keep receiver DJ Moore in your starting fantasy lineups after yet another disappointing performance (two catches for 18 yards on three targets).
"Depending on the health of McCaffrey, Moore is now the third or fourth most productive target on the team with the emergence of Samuel," Newton said. "Moore's inconsistency is highlighted by his 56.4% reception rate, horrid when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is completing 71.9% of his passes. Bridgewater's No. 1 WR target remains Robby Anderson, with Samuel now second with 38 catches and an 88.3% catch rate.
"Why Moore has been inconsistent remains concerning. He's not getting great separation, whether that is of his own fault or teams are using their best cornerback to defend him. Regardless, elite receivers aren't fazed by having top defensive backs on them, and Moore has proved not to be elite when it looked like he would be entering the season."
John Brown, Buffalo Bills
The Bills' deep threat had been nearly silent since Week 2, thanks to nagging injuries. But he broke out for eight catches and 99 yards against the Seattle Seahawks' porous passing defense. Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques recommends using him when the matchups are right.
"When he's healthy, Brown is the second option in Buffalo's passing attack. The issue is that he hasn't been fully healthy very often this season," Louis-Jacques said. "Sunday's 99-yard performance was a mixture of a historically bad Seattle pass defense and Brown's return to relatively full health. But don't forget, the Seahawks played a lot more man coverage than the Bills' previous four opponents. If Buffalo plays against a man-heavy scheme, Brown will be a starting-caliber option. When they don't, adjust your lineup accordingly."
The Chargers' notoriously up-and-down receiver didn't have a season-best performance Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders. But I'm lumping him in with this group because he has been on a nice stretch lately (five catches for 81 yards Sunday after two standout performances in Week 5 and Week 8). Chargers reporter Shelley Smith wrote last week about Williams' developing rapport with rookie QB Justin Herbert.
Alas, Williams was unable to hang on to a potential winning TD in the final seconds Sunday -- and he left with an unspecified injury after the play. So we'll have to monitor his status this week.
I'm adding the Titans' receiver into this group for a whole other reason after he caught zero passes on three targets last week, including his first drop of the season. Davis is a bit of a cautionary tale because he was one of these guys just last week after he had season highs of eight catches and 128 yards. He was one of the most added players in ESPN leagues last week, going from 36% rostered to 60.1%.
But Titans reporter Turron Davenport warned in this column last week that people should temper their expectations. Although Davenport predicted back in the preseason that Davis should be on fantasy radars, he also stressed that it's hard to expect anyone to be consistently productive outside of A.J. Brown because "the Titans have a different player step up each week."
Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:
The good news? Colts reporter Mike Wells said the team will continue to give rookie RB Jonathan Taylor "every opportunity" to become the lead back in Indy. But the bad news is Taylor has yet to take advantage, with veteran backup Jordan Wilkins becoming the latest to outproduce him over the past two weeks.
"Barring a change, they will always start with Taylor and give him that opportunity to be that guy. But if he struggles, they won't hesitate to go to Wilkins or Nyheim Hines," Wells said. "Frank Reich has been outspoken in saying they'll go with whoever is playing best in the second half. And Jordan Wilkins has taken over that role the past two weeks in the second half."
Taylor lost a fumble in the first quarter Sunday, but it was the first of his pro career. Wells said the bigger issue with Taylor is that he has been trying to stretch his runs outside too much instead of finding running lanes.
As ESPN's Saints reporter, I wouldn't worry too much about Michael Thomas' modest production in his first game back since Week 1 (five catches for 51 yards on six targets). No, I don't think Thomas will average close to 10 catches per game like he did last season. But Thomas is still an elite go-to target that should be a weekly lock in your starting lineups. Thomas played only 55% of the Saints' snaps in their 38-3 rout of Tampa Bay, with Drew Brees and Sean Payton both mentioning how they wanted to gradually work him back into the game plan after so much missed time.
On the flip side, I don't think rookie TE Adam Trautman is on the verge of a second-half breakout. His three catches for 39 yards and his first career TD were all good signs that he belongs on fantasy dynasty radars. But he's too far down in the pecking order to expect consistent production when all of the Saints' playmakers are healthy.
Where to begin with this team, which has been shuffling players in and out of the lineup because of an overwhelming rash of injuries and last week's COVID-19 protocols? Who replaces tight end George Kittle? What can we expect from Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel when they come back? Can we read anything into Richie James' nine catches for 184 yards and a TD out of nowhere last week while most of the 49ers' receiving corps was sidelined against the Green Bay Packers?
So I simply asked 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner, "Is there any fantasy advice with this team that you're confident in going forward?"
"In so many ways, you really have to throw out the Packers game. James did have a great performance and deserves credit for that, but I'm not sure that's really going to translate into a bigger role moving forward," Wagoner said. "In fact, it's worth noting that the targets that went to James were actually earmarked for rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk -- which actually brings me to the answer here. I know I've cautioned about putting too much on Aiyuk in the past, and I still think you're probably going to see some ups and downs with him. But I do think he's going to be the focal point of the offense moving forward.
"Samuel and Mostert have a chance to return this week, but Aiyuk has been the hot hand and will undoubtedly have fresh legs after he was an unfortunate victim of circumstances last week. At running back, I suggest caution until Mostert is back and shows he's closer to full strength. He's the one back you should play confidently, but a running back coming off a high ankle sprain should probably show he's back up to speed before you roll with him consistently. And look for [tight end Jordan] Reed to be more involved. The Niners purposefully worked Reed back in slowly last week as he returned from his knee injury."