Fantasy football fallout: Trust T.Y. Hilton and Cam Akers, but don't trust any Steelers

ByMike Triplett ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It's the rare backfield-by-committee approach 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.

We've reached the fantasy football playoffs, which means only one question really matters anymore: "Can I trust Player X in my starting lineup?" That was the key focus with players trending up and down in this week's tour around the league:


T.Y. Hilton and Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Colts reporter Mike Wells admitted he was "completely wrong" when he suggested a couple of weeks ago that fantasy managers should hold off on believing that Hilton had turned a corner. But in Wells' defense, the Colts themselves got it wrong for most of the season too. It took quarterback Philip Rivers a few months to get comfortable throwing the ball consistently to the 5-foot-10 wide receiver after Rivers had shown a preference for bigger targets throughout his career.

Rivers and Hilton have connected 17 times for 277 yards and four touchdowns over the past three games.

"Buy, buy, buy and buy some more of the hype surrounding Hilton's late-season surge," said Wells -- especially since Hilton is about to face a Houston Texans defense he has routinely thrived against in his career, including eight catches for 110 yards and a TD two weeks ago.

As for Taylor, it's pretty obvious that the rookie running back has finally found a groove after struggling to consistently produce earlier in the year. All season long, Wells has explained that the Colts were going to give Taylor every opportunity to carry the rushing workload each week -- but that they wouldn't hesitate to lean on veterans such asNyheim Hines or Jordan Wilkins in the second half if either had the hotter hand.

Taylor has kept the hot hand in his past three games played, including a season-high 150 yards and two TDs on 20 carries Sunday.

"It's Taylor's show," Wells said. "He's rolling."

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

Speaking of rookie running backs who couldn't break out of timeshares for most of the season, the Rams suddenly cut Akers loose with 29 carries for 171 yards and two catches for 23 yards in Thursday's rout over the New England Patriots.

Coach Sean McVay didn't make any promises that this kind of workload will continue: "We know Cam is capable of that. But to say that we would commit to that [feature] approach, I don't necessarily think that's the exact thing that we're thinking."

However, Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry said no one should be shocked if they continue to feature Akers after his breakout started with nine carries for 84 yards and a TD in Week 12 and 21 carries for 72 yards and a TD in Week 13.

"Following his standout Week 13 performance, Akers told reporters that the more touches he gets, the better rhythm he finds. McVay must have been listening," Thiry said. "When asked if McVay heard his postgame comments from the previous week, Akers laughed and said, 'I think he did.'"

Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers

After catching a TD pass in each of the past four games, Tonyan now ranks fourth among all tight ends in ESPN's PPR scoring this season. And Packers reporter Rob Demovsky said he is "for real" because Aaron Rodgers "believes in him and trusts in him as much as anyone not named Davante Adams."

"He's such an intelligent player, and I love playing with smart players," Rodgers said of the former practice squad player. "He gets by a lot of times on that intelligence. He's a smart route runner. He understands the scheme. I think he's got a good feel out on the field. I think the jumps that you've seen from him have been across the board. You've seen him become a better blocker, become a better route runner, be better after the catch. He's always been a great hands catcher. And you love that as a quarterback because of the radius you can throw the ball to him."

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

This might also be pretty obvious fantasy analysis, but consider it a public-service announcement for the 30% of ESPN leagues in which the 49ers rookie still isn't rostered. Niners reporter Nick Wagoner called Aiyuk a "clear-cut fantasy option" after he caught a career-high 10 passes for 119 yards Sunday -- especially since fellow receiver Deebo Samuel was sidelined with another hamstring injury that puts the rest of his season in doubt.

Aiyuk now has a total of 36 catches for 495 yards and three TD catches in his past five games played.

"With Samuel out and the 49ers run game struggling, expect Aiyuk to continue to be the focal point as the Niners build toward 2021," Wagoner said.


All Pittsburgh Steelers

Running back James Conner's return from the reserve/COVID-19 list was a big dud on Sunday night, as he ran the ball just 10 times for 18 yards and didn't catch a pass. Receiver Diontae Johnson was temporarily benched after dropping two more passes on the first two series of the 26-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills. And while WR JuJu Smith-Schuster managed a productive enough game (six catches for 55 yards and a TD), Pittsburgh's revolving production at that position has been hard to predict all season.

"At this point, I wouldn't trust any of them [in a fantasy playoff lineup]," said Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor, who said jokingly that she is a little relieved she didn't make her own fantasy playoffs so she can avoid such decisions. "Johnson is still the best playmaker out of the group, but he's a high-risk, high-reward guy. And right now, his drops -- and subsequent threat of benching -- make the risk outweigh the reward. Receiver James Washington has had touchdowns in back-to-back games, but the offense is so stagnant in general that it's hard to trust him to put up points consistently.

"Conner is also not trustworthy because the Steelers' run game is flat-out bad. In the past two games, the Steelers have combined for 68 rushing yards on 31 attempts for 2.2 yards per rush. This same team rushed for at least 100 yards in the first five games of the season. Since Week 7, though, the Steelers rank last in the NFL in rushing yards per game and yards per rush."

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys reporter Todd Archer already warned in this column two weeks ago that it would be hard to trust Elliott down the stretch because of the rash of injuries across Dallas' offensive line. Sure enough, we have seen Elliott's fantasy points fluctuate from 19.4 to 2.9 to 13.5 to 7.9 over the past four games. As Archer pointed out, Elliott had seven goal-to-go carries in those four games -- and he has gained a total of 1 yard with zero touchdowns.

Elliott is also dealing with a calf bruise. As a result, he wasn't able to exploit an ideal game script in Sunday's 30-7 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals. He finished with just 14 touches, while backup Tony Pollard had 13 touches and a receiving TD.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals reporter Ben Baby was blunt after Bernard lost a fumble on his first carry of the game Sunday and wound up playing just 17 offensive snaps -- behind Samaje Perine (28) and Trayveon Williams (27).

"It's official. The Bengals no longer have a running back fantasy managers can rely on," said Baby, who pointed out that Sunday was the first time the Bengals had used a rotation since starter Joe Mixon was sidelined by a foot injury in Week 6. "Those looking for production and points at the running back spot will have to look somewhere outside of Cincinnati."


Jalen Hurts andMiles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles reporter Tim McManus said he would start Sanders "with confidence" after the running back busted loose for 115 yards and two TDs on 14 carries against theNew Orleans Saints' No. 2-ranked run defense. Although 82 of those yards came on one play, McManus said the switch from Carson Wentz to Hurts at quarterback has done a couple of things to positively impact Sanders' value.

"One, it's led to coach Doug Pederson committing to the ground game more to take pressure off the rookie QB," McManus said. "Secondly, Hurts being a threat with his legs in his own right -- he also rushed for 106 yards in his starting debut -- forces defenses to account for him, opening up running lanes in the process."

Meanwhile, McManus said that Hurts showed he could be a "decent" fantasy option himself.

"Clearly you see the formula here," McManus said. "He's going to use his legs a lot to put pressure on the opposing defense and also has decent accuracy, including on deep balls. You put those two together and you could get some chunk plays and rushing touchdowns, which could be enough."

Tua Tagovailoa andLynn Bowden Jr., Miami Dolphins

Tagovailoa isn't the safest of bets next week against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team that still knows how to make rookie QBs uncomfortable. But Dolphins reporter Cameron Wolfe said if you need a streaming option, he would feel comfortable using Tagovailoa because he has continued to improve -- and because he will have to throw a lot more if RB Myles Gaskin remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Tagovailoa threw for a season-high 316 yards on 48 pass attempts in Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after his previous high of 296 yards on 39 attempts a week earlier.

"The question becomes, 'How will he be impacted without his weapons?'" Wolfe said of the injury concerns surrounding WRs DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant and TE Mike Gesicki. "But Tua just put up 300-plus yards with virtually no weapons."

One guy who has helped fill the void is Bowden, who barely played for most of the season after arriving via trade with the Las Vegas Raiders. But he has 11 catches for 123 yards over the past two weeks.

"I'm intrigued about Bowden's offensive role and value in deep fantasy leagues for the rest of the year," Wolfe said. "He actually led the Dolphins with seven catches for 82 yards on nine targets Sunday, and it's the second straight week that he's dominated the team's slot receiver reps. He's proving he can be secure in that role for the rest of the season and into 2021. Bowden is one of the Dolphins' few offensive players who can get yards after that catch, and Tagovailoa loves those type of playmakers. He also has been occasionally used as a running back and gadget QB, which helps his upside."

Kyler Murray and Dan Arnold, Arizona Cardinals

Murray still fell short of 20 fantasy points for the third straight week. But the quarterback got back to what he has done best all year -- running the ball (13 times for 47 yards) and throwing to DeAndre Hopkins (nine catches for 136 yards) -- which should make fantasy managers feel better about keeping him as their QB1.

"Sunday was a good example of why fantasy managers shouldn't bail on Murray yet. When he runs, the Cardinals -- and him -- are successful," said Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss, who added it also helped that Murray got Hopkins involved early in the 26-7 win over the New York Giants. "He threw to him three times in the first quarter, completing two of them for 32 yards, and that set the tone for the rest of the game. Getting Hopkins involved early has been a good trend for the Cardinals."

A more surprising trend: Murray has thrown three TD passes to the tight end Arnold in the past two games and four TDs over the past four games. Although Weinfuss said Arnold doesn't get as many snaps as most fantasy options at tight end, he could be worth a flier in deep leagues because he has "essentially become Murray's safety valve" if the quarterback ever gets in trouble and wants to throw it up and give the big target a chance.

Evan Engram, New York Giants

Engram's dud (two catches for 18 yards) was disappointing after the tight end had shown some flashes in recent weeks. But Giants reporter Jordan Raanan stressed that fantasy managers shouldn't "count out Engram just yet" because the entire offense was out of sync Sunday with the hobbled Daniel Jones at quarterback. And Raanan pointed out that next week's opponent, the Cleveland Browns, had allowed the second-most fantasy points against TEs of any team in the NFL heading into Week 14.

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