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Fantasy Football Week 15: Should you start these struggling big-name WRs in the playoffs?

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“Always start your studs” has generally struck me as a convenient and short-sighted fantasy strategy around playoff time. What’s a stud, anyway? And what do we do when a name player starts to produce like an ordinary one?

Five brand-name wideouts caught my eye this week, some players who looked like easy calls a month ago but have fallen into tricky times. As you sort through the difficult challenges presented by Week 15, have a look inside my receiver notebook below, and at least hear the arguments through.

Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team

The Problem: Stuck on three touchdowns for the year. Had just 36 receiving yards, combined, in the last two weeks.

McLaurin’s one of my favorite current receivers and it still blows my mind that he lasted until the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. But when will he get to enjoy the benefit of a competent quarterback? He has 10 touchdowns since turning pro, and they’ve come from Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, and Alex Smith. Heck, Keenum (91.3 rating last year) looks like Peyton Manning compared to these other guys.

[Week 15 Fantasy Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Kickers]

Verdict: Seattle’s defense looks like the get-right spot McLaurin so badly needs, though a favorable schedule and some personnel improvement have led to a surprising run over the past five games (no wide receiver touchdowns allowed). If Smith is confirmed to start, I’ll probably give McLaurin the benefit of the doubt and keep him in my lineups, but if Haskins has to play, I might look to other options.

At the moment, I can’t sign off on McLaurin’s half-point Expert Consensus Ranking of 15. The industry is probably not considering Seattle’s secondary a modestly improved unit, or unable to proactively sit a name-brand talent like McLaurin.

Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Problem: Brown simply hasn’t produced since the Bucs brought him on board. He’s averaging 8.7 YPC and 43 yards per game. He doesn’t have a touchdown.

It’s likely that Tampa Bay made a mistake bringing on Brown, trying to solve a problem it didn’t have. Heck, Brown’s arrival means less time for Scotty Miller, who has the best per-target efficiency on the team. Even if we accept that Miller’s production is partly buoyed by his modest workload — think how a relief pitcher can have a knockout ERA that a starting pitcher might not hold onto — it hurts the Buccaneers that he’s been put into a lesser role. And there are other issues in Tampa Bay. Is the quarterback too old? Is Bruce Arians still a good fit as a head coach? Does Brown still have his explosiveness?

Verdict: Brown only played 45 percent of the snaps last week against Minnesota. If you want to chase a blowup game to come, that’s your call, but I can’t use him proactively. His half-point ECR stands at 35; I’m far less interested. I need a prove-it week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (81)
Antonio Brown hasn't earned every-week start-ability in fantasy. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

The Problem: Lockett has just one touchdown in his past seven games, and he’s been without a spike in 9-of-13 starts. He’s also struggling to get downfield, sitting on a career-low YPC.

Lockett and DK Metcalf were drafted around the same pocket in the summer, but Metcalf has become the team’s explosive playmaker. Both players have 106 targets, but Metcalf has turned his opportunity into 17.1 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns, while Lockett sits at 10.9 and eight touchdowns (still a good number, even as they’ve come inconsistently).

Verdict: Receiver is the variance position of fantasy football, the truest Boom-and-Bust players we deal with. Although the Washington defense is a challenge this week (it’s second in pass-defense DVOA and has been especially stingy against No. 2 receivers), all of my Lockett teams will be forced to roll with him, wanting to take a stab at the Russell Wilson experience. Lockett is still in the Top 20 of half-point ECR, and I’ll sign off on that. Maybe the floor is gone, but Lockett still has plausible upside, and Seattle generally has performed well in those funky East Coast trips, playing at an early body-clock time.

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Problem: Johnson’s had a rash of drops — 12 in all — often on basic, short, easy catches. The Steelers benched him for about half of Sunday’s game against Buffalo.

Mike Tomlin said all the right things this week, noting that Johnson handled his temporary benching well. Then again, Tomlin’s also intimated that if players on the team can’t start catching the ball consistently, the Steelers will be forced to use others who can be counted on. Ben Roethlisberger’s decline also comes into play here; he hates to use play action (denying Pittsburgh perhaps the greatest offensive cheat code in the game today) and has been unwilling to hold the ball and take downfield shots. For a team with so much obvious name-brand skill talent, it’s become a boring, sluggish offense.

Verdict: I can’t view Johnson as an automatic starter until he proves he’s over the yips; even with Cincinnati waiting on Monday, I’m ranking Johnson behind his half-point ECR of 24. He needs to prove he’s back in the circle of trust.

DJ Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Problem: One touchdown in eight games. He’s topped 60 yards just once in two months.

Although Chark had one big game with Jake Luton, I’m still willing to blame his mediocre season on Gardner Minshew’s thumb injury and the team’s dog-housing of Minshew since then. Although Baltimore has a name-brand defense, the secondary can be vulnerable — look at what Cleveland just did on Monday night.

Verdict: Chark’s half-point ECR is 36; I’m slightly more bullish for Week 15. Minshew to the rescue.

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