This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
With the bye weeks creating some seriously tough starting decisions, it's time to dig deep.
The top two leaders in passing yards – Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, respectively – will deflate numbers this week as they give their arms a breather. That also means plenty of top receiving options are unavailable in a week when it's advisable to make up for the absence of aerial yardage with running backs in flex spots. And given the state of that position, useful ones can be had off the waiver wire even as deep into the season as we are.
That's the only advice I'll offer up though as far as a strategy for the week. After all (spoiler alert), I must be crazy to have THREE upgraded Bills players and THREE downgraded Saints players in the below text. So, trust the arguments if you agree with them, but do so at your own risk.
We're entering a danger zone of bye weeks where things can get silly for 4-to-5 weeks. With that said, let's keep the intro short and get to the meat and potatoes of a tricky Week 7 slate.
Note: This column is not intended to be a traditional "Start/Sit" piece. My goal is to provide perspective you may not have considered and help make those tough decisions easier – or make you rethink those "no-brainer" choices.
Upgrades are not necessarily weekly starters (outside of the top 20 RB/WR, top 10 QB/TE) but are set to boost their production. Downgrades are worth benching or, for some bigger names, should be held to lower expectations for this week.
Baker Mayfield, CLE at TB
Insert quarterback playing the Buccaneers. While it's hard to overlook the woeful performance Mayfield and his receivers put on tape in a disastrous loss to a mediocre Chargers defense, it would be fantasy malpractice not to consider any quarterback with discernable ability a starter versus Tampa Bay. He'll need some help from his receivers, but Mayfield should bounce back nicely versus a Bucs defense that has allowed at least 350 yards and three scores passing during a three-game losing skid, including an egregious six-touchdown torching by Mitchell Trubisky.
Mitchell Trubisky, CHI vs. NE
All Trubisky has done in his last two outings is throw for 670 yards, rush for 100 yards on 11 attempts and toss nine TDs. No big deal. He's completed over 70 percent of his attempts for more than 10.0 YPA in both of those games and is orchestrating one of the most creative offenses in the league. He figures to stay red-hot versus a Patriots defense that has surrendered at least 350 yards and three scores through the air in consecutive weeks and the second-most passing TDs (15) on the season – especially if Tom Brady does Tom Brady things to a Chicago defense with an injured Khalil Mack (ankle).
Andy Dalton, CIN at KC
The only quarterback the Chiefs have faced who has failed to throw for at least 250 yards and generate multiple touchdowns is Case Keenum. Since Dalton, who is tied for fourth with 14 touchdown passes, is a wee bit better than the Denver gunslinger and throwing to the likes of A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon, he's in QB1 territory this week given some of the stud quarterbacks on bye.
Eli Manning, NYG at ATL
The way Atlanta has forgotten to cover running backs (even Peyton Barber caught a touchdown against them), Saquon Barkley might single-handedly make Manning a quality starter this week in two-quarterback and superflex formats. In all seriousness, though, a clean pocket could be a game-changer for Manning on Monday night. In the only contest in which he was not sacked multiple times he pitched it for 326 yards and two scores in Carolina. Facing a Falcons defense that has coughed up the fourth-most passing yards and most touchdowns to opposing signal callers AND which has registered just 10 sacks this season, Manning should thrive in a possible shootout and silence his doubters for a … well … no, that part is not happening even if prime Dan Marino shows up wearing a blue number 10. But fantasy production can still be had.
LeSean McCoy, BUF at IND
The Colts are one of just seven defenses to have allowed over 500 rushing and 300 receiving yards to the running back position, so although their performance against tailbacks has not been all bad, they seem unlikely to keep McCoy from posting a nice yardage output. The veteran back has been wildly underwhelming this year and is still searching for his first touchdown, but he's quietly posted at least 94 scrimmage yards in consecutive outings while tallying 45 touches between them. He looks just as shifty as ever, and regardless of who is at quarterback for the Bills, they should remain competitive in this contest because they have a talented defense (seriously, they've allowed just 53 points to opposing offenses since Week 3) going up against a thin and inexperienced Indy offense.
Duke Johnson, CLE at TB
This has nothing to do with Johnson's ability as a runner (even if his last seven carries have gone for 71 yards). Tampa Bay added the behemoth Vita Vea in the draft to complete a much-improved and beefier front seven. With the upgrades, they've held running backs to just 66.6 rushing yards per game and 3.5 YPC. They have, however, allowed an obscene 366.8 yards passing and 34.6 points per game, both league worsts. Baker Mayfield will be slinging it plenty in this one with little resistance. Johnson has yet to receive six touches in a single game, but with his prowess as a receiver and a mostly bare cupboard of receiving weapons, he should have his most productive day yet, especially if Tampa's high-powered pass attack creates a shootout. Coming off 109 scrimmage yards in a come-from-behind effort, Johnson could produce an encore.
Marlon Mack, IND vs. BUF
The return of the Mack to Indianapolis' offense provided a much-needed spark to a rushing attack that's been invisible for five weeks. The explosive second-year slasher registered the only 20-plus-yard run the Colts have had by a tailback this season and showed no signs of missing his trademark burst despite coming off a hamstring injury. Although the Bills have gotten better at slowing opposing backfields, they've still allowed at least 70 scrimmage yards or a score to a running back in each of their four losses, and even let Derrick Henry run for 56 yards at a season-high 5.1 YPC average.
There are too many fun metaphors for what Gore is as an effective 35-year-old running back, so let's just call him what he really is: one of the best to ever do it. After slicing through the Bears with his north-and-south style for 101 yards on 15 carries, the Energizer freaking Bunny of running backs is going to be licking his chops to face a Lions defense allowing a league-high 6.0 YPC to opposing rushers. Since the Lions are an anti-tackle bunch, the home-run-hitting Drake is set up beautifully for a redemption effort. After nearly fumbling away a fantastic upset win at the one-inch line, he gets to rip off chunk gains against Detroit and build on the 193 scrimmage yards he's posted the last two weeks.
Peyton Barber, TB vs. CLE
It seems Barber will be keeping the lead role in the Tampa Bay backfield after all. Coming off a season-high 82 rushing yards on 13 carries (6.3 YPC) to go with 24 yards and a TD receiving, Barber should keep the good times rolling. The Browns, despite a trio of talented linebackers, don't enjoy tackling (bonus: 2017 Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Schobert will likely be sidelined with a hamstring injury). In their last three outings, Cleveland has allowed opposing running backs to rack up 429 rushing yards at a 5.8 YPC clip and for the season the 733 ground yards and seven rushing scores they've given up to the position are good for the third and second most in the league, respectively.
Both Broncos rookie tailbacks are averaging at least 4.7 YPC. While Lindsay is pacing the duo in scrimmage yards (76.5 per contest), the burly Freeman is the owner of a three-game scoring streak from Weeks 2-4 and the likelier of the two to get goal-line carries. So, although Freeman is coming off his worst performance of the season in which he netted just 22 yards, even he needs to be granted flex consideration against a Cardinals defense that's allowed an average of a whopping 195.7 scrimmage yards to opposing tailbacks and given up 10 scores to the position – both league highs. Lindsay, meanwhile, is a high-floor option in this matchup considering he's tallied at least 66 scrimmage yards in games in which he was not ejected.
Devin Funchess, CAR at PHI
Before benefitting greatly from a cement-footed Eli Manning, the Eagles pass defense had struggled mightily to slow down opposing wide receivers. In the first five contests, Philly allowed seven different wideouts to register at least 77 yards, including two that topped 160. Now arguably the Eagles' most talented cornerback, Sidney Jones, is doubtful to suit up with a hamstring injury. Coming off his best performance of the season and with at least 77 yards or a score in three of his last four, Funchess is poised to post a big day versus an Eagles team likely to force Cam Newton and Co. to air it out plenty.
Christian Kirk, ARI vs. DEN
Someone has posted at least 86 yards or a touchdown receiving against the Broncos in every game, and if anyone is going to do either for Arizona, that someone is likely to be Kirk. With at least 77 yards in three of the last four games, including a 75-yard score, the rookie speedster has quickly become fellow freshman Josh Rosen's favorite target. Expect that to remain the same when Denver's top corner Chris Harris spends most of his night shadowing Larry Fitzgerald.
Taylor Gabriel, CHI vs. NE
The Patriots have allowed two touchdowns of more than 60 yards to a wide receiver this year, both going to burners with sub-4.4 speed. Like Tyreek Hill and Dede Westbrook, the diminutive weapon is pacing the Bears ahead of Allen Robinson in both catches and yards, while snagging an impressive 79.4 percent of his targets in the process. With consecutive 100-yard games under his belt, Chicago's version of Hill in the Matt Nagy system is going to stay heavily involved (at least six touches in four straight) in a potential shootout.
Kelvin Benjamin, BUF at IND
You ever watch the World Series of Poker on TV and hear a player in an all-in situation yell "one time!" when the last card is being dealt? That's what this is. The Bills will get a new starter under center with Josh Allen (elbow) sidelined, and Benjamin has a welcoming history with Derek Anderson. The veteran QB started three games with Buffalo's ginormous wideout while the two were in Carolina and in each Benjamin posted at least 70 yards, including a combined 196 yards in two contests during the latter's rookie season. An experienced passer who feeds his best targets, Anderson could become Benjamin's meal ticket one week after the former first-round pick reminded us he's alive with catches of 39 and 44 yards (the latter called back due to an illegal formation penalty, but still, he made the catch).
Willie Snead, BAL vs. NO
The revenge narrative is fun, and sometimes it is legitimately a factor for an elite talent facing a former team, but that's not what this is or why Snead is called out. He's here for three reasons: (1) He's very quietly registered at least five catches and 55 yards in three straight contests; (2) Saints corners not named Marshon Lattimore are dreadful (side note: Lattimore is highly unlikely to move into the slot to check Snead); and (3) New Orleans has been terrific shutting down the ground game. Running backs have averaged 2.8 YPC versus their strong front seven, and that trend should result in plenty of Joe Flacco dropbacks on Sunday.
C.J. Uzomah, CIN at KC
Even Jeff Heuerman and Niles Paul notched at least 57 yards against the Chiefs. That's how generous they are to tight ends. Having given up a league-high 550 yards to the position, Kansas City is clearly missing defensive centerpiece Eric Berry in a big way. Look for Uzomah – the clear-cut No. 1 tight end for Cincy now that Tyler Eifert (ankle) and Tyler Kroft (foot) are out – to continue exploiting this weakness. After posting at least 43 yards or a score in four of the last five weeks, he's quietly one of the best options for fantasy owners scrambling at the thin position.
Charles Clay, BUF at IND
A forgotten man after five straight seasons with at least 49 catches and more than 500 yards, Clay could make an appearance this week in a big way after failing to top 40 yards in any of the first six weeks. Derek Anderson has only been in Buffalo for a couple of weeks, but he'll draw the start with Josh Allen (elbow) sidelined. It will be Anderson's first since 2016. In his last three starts stepping in for Cam Newton, the now 14-year vet REALLY leaned on his tight end. Granted, Clay is not of Greg Olsen's caliber, but if Anderson targeted the latter more than 10 times in each of those three starts (37 total looks) and connected with him 27 times for 374 yards and a score, it stands to reason he just generally prefers tight end matchups. Against a Colts defense that has given up the fifth-most yards to the position, that could yield some nice results.
Chris Herndon, NYJ vs. MIN
Looking for an exceptionally deep sleeper at tight end? Look no further. Herndon is a plus athlete who could be poised to assume a much bigger role in the Jets passing attack with Quincy Enunwa (ankle) out and Terrelle Pryor (groin) and Robby Anderson (hamstring) nursing injuries. Coming off 56 yards and a score last week, the rookie tight end will look to continue his strong play against a Vikings defense that's allowed the fourth-most yards (467) to tight ends, including the 69 yards Ricky Seals-Jones posted against them last week (his season high thus far).
Drew Brees, NO at BAL
Playing Brees is the toughest call of the week. On one hand, he's playing laser-sharp football coming out of his bye week with a full arsenal of targets that are rounding into form, including Cameron Meredith, Tre'Quan Smith and even Mark Ingram out of the backfield. On the other hand, however, he will play his second outdoor game of the season against a defense currently allowing the lowest completion percentage (55.6) and YPA (6.0) in the league while also leading in sacks (26). The Ravens went to Pittsburgh and held Ben Roethlisberger to 27-of-47 passing for a season-low 5.83 YPA and just one score. If they can do that with all his weapons, this could resemble Brees' last outdoor game in which he threw for only 217 yards without a score.
Tom Brady, NE at CHI
Pointing to Brock Osweiler when looking at this game for Brady would be the most box-score-watching thing to do. Yes, on paper Osweiler had a monster game. And sure, Brady can dink and dunk his way to a fine day versus the Bears' stiff pass rush. And yes, Khalil Mack is banged-up (ankle). But don't overlook the crazy lucky bounces Miami got passing the ball or near picks Osweiler threw or ridiculous punt-return-like YAC Albert Wilson generated on two of the castaway quarterback's touchdowns. The Bears are still a top-five defense without question and will host a Brady offense that wants to lean on Sony Michel when possible. Brady does have plenty of weapons, but Chicago can neutralize many of them in the same way it did to Tampa Bay before an implosion in South Beach last week.
Deshaun Watson, HOU at JAX
No. Just no. Houston's offensive line is a disaster, and Watson is not doing it any favors, holding the ball too long and forcing bad throws under pressure. Against Dak Prescott's Cowboys, the Jaguars suffered mightily versus another running quarterback who takes too long to survey the field last week, but he has one of the better offensive lines in football (yes, still) and an elite running back who helped move the sticks consistently. The Texans don't have the ground game to keep Jacksonville honest, and with Will Fuller a step slow due to a hamstring injury against a secondary with much to prove and the talent to do it, Watson is going to fall on his face for the second straight week.
Carlos Hyde, CLE at TB
This simply is not a Hyde game. It's not his style. The Buccaneers have allowed exactly as many receiving yards (333) as they have rushing yards to the running back position. Hyde has a whopping 29 receiving yards on 10 targets. Meanwhile, he's averaged more than 4.0 YPC just once on the season and required volume and red-zone attempts to generate fantasy points. Against a Tampa Bay defense that added first-round pick Vita Vea to a hugely upgraded defensive line, he's going to find little running room (they've given up 3.5 YPC to RBs) and, perhaps, a season low in carries. Duke Johnson is working his way onto the field more often, and Nick Chubb is overdue for an increased workload.
Isaiah Crowell, NYJ vs. MIN
The Jets might want to lean on their ground game this week with their receiving corps ailing, but good luck with that. The Vikings will be wise to stack the box and make rookie quarterback Sam Darnold test the likes of Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. That spells doom for Crowell, who's done nothing this year as a pass catcher and has been the epitome of big-play or touchdown-dependent to produce. His five carries of 20-plus yards have accounted for 250 of his 430 rushing yards and two of his touchdowns. Against a Minnesota defense that has allowed the shortest "long" run in the league (a measly 16 yards) and has given up just one rushing touchdown to the tailback position, Crowell has 'bust week' written all over him.
Mark Ingram, NO at BAL
Ingram certainly made a splash in his return from suspension in Week 5, stealing the show from Alvin Kamara with a couple of goal-line scores and 18 touches. Expect the reverse this week when the latter's pass-catching prowess is needed against the league's third-best run defense. Ingram will get some early run, no doubt, but if he fails to generate much push against a powerful front seven that's limited opposing tailbacks to 3.6 YPC, bank on the more versatile Kamara leading the way.
DeAndre Hopkins, HOU at JAX
It's not just that Hopkins will have to deal with coverage from Jalen Ramsey that'll likely be tighter than spandex, but the reason to doubt the ultra-consistent receiver this week also goes on his quarterback, who looks like a chicken with his head cut off behind a miserable offensive line. If Hopkins doesn't see the double-digit targets he needed to find the end zone against Jacksonville last year, he could have his worst performance of the season on tap.
Michael Thomas, NO at BAL
The Ravens' secondary is among the best in the league, and they've proven it in recent weeks, holding the best receivers they've faced – Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jarvis Landry and Corey Davis – to a combined 36/15/215/1 for a shoddy 41.7 percent catch rate and measly 6.0 YPA. Thomas may be one of the game's elite wideouts, but even prior to New Orleans' bye week, his numbers were suffering. Catching 38 of 40 targets in the first three weeks necessitated extra defensive attention and opened the door for the notoriously indiscriminate Drew Brees to start involving new wideouts Cameron Meredith and Tre'Quan Smith more. The return of Mark Ingram only further hurts Thomas' stock, allowing the Saints to return to the run-heavy approach that powered their offense through 2017. Thomas saw only nine targets in two games as a result, and now facing almost sure double teams from a frenetic Baltimore defense, he's likely to remain quieter than usual.
T.Y. Hilton, IND vs. BUF
While Hilton (hamstring) appears likely to return to the Colts' lineup this week (he practiced in full on Wednesday), that does not mean he should return to fantasy lineups. Although he has at least 115 yards or a touchdown in three of his four appearances on the season, in addition to him being one step away from a setback to his hammy, the anticipated coverage he'll face from rising star cornerback Tre'Davious White will almost certainly limit him. Almost exclusively checking outside receivers, White has faced a gauntlet of stud wideouts and handled them all exceptionally well. He basically erased Stefon Diggs (10 targets, four catches, 17 yards) and held Davante Adams, Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins each to 81 yards or fewer despite the trio seeing 28 combined targets. Hilton's "welcome" back to the field will be unpleasant.