NFL Real/Not Real: Week 16

Welcome to another edition of the “Real or Not Real” article for the 2016 NFL season. In this piece, Ricky Sanders will examine whether the hype and/or recent production surrounding certain players warrants deeming them as “for real” or remaining skeptical and considering them “not for real.”

Here are Ricky’s thoughts surrounding players who opened some eyeballs with their Week 16 performances one way or another:

Blake Bortles, Jaguars – Blake Bortles is the football personification of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on both a weekly basis and yearly basis to this point in his career. Since he came into the league, Bortles has been working on shortening his long delivery but there were signs that his 2015 was a bit of a mirage. He led the entire NFL in interceptions and also had nine passes dropped by defenders which gave him 26 adjusted interceptions (also most of the league). The average interception to adjusted interception rate is 78-percent so Bortles actually threw 2.5 interceptions fewer than he should have last year, based on average luck (per Football Outsiders). Amidst a disappointing season in which he now has thrown 22 TDs to 16 interceptions (INTs), Bortles managed to top 25 fantasy points for only the third time this season in Week 16. The Colts rank 27th in passing defense according to Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA metric so Bortles is viable this week but the better question is whether he is the answer at QB for the Jaguars in the long run. In order for him to work, the team needs to build a Cowboys-esque setup around him with a solid running game and especially an elite offensive line (especially with his delivery). Otherwise, he could go down as the worst QB to ever throw for 35-plus TDs in a season (which he accomplished in 2015). Basically, it is very unlikely the team is able to salvage any true value out of him either in the immediate or distant future. Verdict: Not For Real

DeAndre Washington, Raiders – Heading into Sunday’s tilt against the Colts, DeAndre Washington actually ranked third in the backfield in terms of fantasy points accrued behind Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard. In the preseason, I loved Washington’s prospects for fantasy mostly due to Murray’s mediocre skill set combined with the fact he was the was the only RB the team selected in the 2016 draft to potentially give the starter a run for his money. For the first 15 weeks of the season, Washington not only failed to score a TD but he had not top 57 total yards from scrimmage in a single game either. Furthermore, the undrafted rookie Richard had out-touched him 99-82 during that span as well…then came Week 16. On just 12 carries, Washington looked shot out of a cannon as he rushed for 99 yards and scored two TDs. At the combine, the kid ran a 4.49 40-yard dash, an impressive 7.03 second three cone drill and 4.20 second 20 yard shuffle. In other words, he has skills and he displayed just how deadly his agility and speed can be as a weapon for an offense even at his small stature. Assuming the team is willing to continuing relying on him, which is a question mark, this should only be the beginning of his reign of terror. As for his fantasy value in Week 17, the limited touches make him hard to rely on even though I still believe he projects well in the future. Verdict: Not For Real (but talented)

Zach Zenner, Lions – Prior to Monday Night Football, Zach Zenner had topped out at 9.70 fantasy points. Of course, that was until Zenner rushed 12 times for 67 yards and two TDs against the Cowboys and even caught two passes for 25 yards. After playing just 18 snaps to Washington’s 44 in Week 15, Zenner played 54 snaps to Washington’s 51 this go-around. Assuming Theo Riddick remains out in a pivotal Week 17 (the Lions and Packers will be playing for the NFC North Championship), Zenner deserves another shot considering he headed into this game averaging 3.5 YPC to Washington’s 2.9 YPC. The two issues here are Zenner’s lack of explosiveness and the Packers stout front seven (rank 11th in rushing DVOA and have allowed the 11th fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs). One good game does not suddenly transform Zenner into a savior especially considering his dependence on TDs. Against the Packers, both rushing yardage and TDs are few and far between and one TD may not even be enough to make a difference. This is nothing more than a flash in the pan. Verdict: Not For Real

Brandon LaFell, Bengals – With Tyler Eifert suffering a season-ending injury in Week 16, joining A.J. Green, the team now has no choice but to continue to rely on the veteran Brandon LaFell as the top target in the passing game. Over the course of the last two games, LaFell has been targeted a whopping 19 times and has scored at least 16.10 fantasy points in each contest (DraftKings/FantasyDraft scoring). Now, the team will take on a Ravens secondary that is no pushover but Andy Dalton attempted a hefty 48 passing attempts against this defense in the previous meeting. Why? Well, the Ravens literally rank first in rushing DVOA so attempting to run against them is like banging your head against the wall. Consequently, passing against them, especially with Jimmy Smith ailing, is the way to beat them. With LaFell still priced reasonably across the industry despite his 6-130-1 performance last week, he is absolutely worthy of deploying in the final week of the season. Verdict: For Real

Adam Thielen, Vikings – Since Nov. 24, Stefon Diggs has been targeted more than eight times exactly zero times. Meanwhile, Adam Thielen’s 47.60 fantasy point explosion against the Packers marked the second time during that span he had seen eight-plus targets. Earlier in the year, Cordarrelle Patterson seemed like he would emerge as the team’s number two WR and yet he has caught more than four passes just twice since Nov. 6. Although Thielen’s Week 15 performance that resulted in one target and zero receptions looks ugly, he left the game with a neck injury. Prior that that, he had either caught seven passes, eclipsed 100 yards or scored a TD in five consecutive games (at least 12.20 fantasy points in every game during that stretch). In other words, he had been quietly emerging as a viable threat in this offense prior to the breakout. 202 yards and two TDs on 15 targets is no accident and Thielen remains a viable option against a decent Bears secondary in Week 17. Verdict: For Real