Alvin KamaraChris Graythen/Getty ImagesAlvin Kamara went undrafted in many leagues due to the presence of Adrian Peterson. Those who did draft him were rewarded.
First-year running backs have led the NFL in rushing for consecutive seasons, and this is a trend fantasy managers need to take seriously. After all, another loaded crew of healthy, determined players will be entering the league from college this summer, skilled enough to statistically dominate should opportunity arise, and that sure did happen in 2017. Four of the top 10 running backs in ESPN PPR formats were rookies this season, and it’s not a fluke. It’s the future, and while it doesn’t mean fantasy managers should avoid the older fellows like Mark Ingram and LeSean McCoy, it does mean we can’t ignore facts. It doesn’t matter what real-life round these young running backs go in; all that matters are the opportunities they receive. Take New Orleans Saints star Alvin Kamara, for example. It seems ridiculous now, but fantasy managers actually believed the threat of Adrian Peterson was a good reason to bypass him. Kamara finished third among all running backs in PPR scoring, collecting 14 total touchdowns, catching a cool 826 yards worth of passes and looking like a future Le’Veon Bell. The Kansas City Chiefs chose Kareem Hunt in the third round, and when Spencer Ware -- remember him? -- got hurt, the starting role opened up. Hunt starred in September, led the NFL in rushing and scored 11 touchdowns. Neither the Jacksonville Jaguars nor Carolina Panthers made any secret about the critically relevant roles that awaited Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, and each finished as a top-10 option, though with a vastly different statistical path. And there were more, of course. Those were the big names, but opportunity also presented itself for the Cincinnati BengalsJoe Mixon, Washington RedskinsSamaje Perine, both Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and who knows what the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook could have achieved statistically had a devastating knee injury not intervened in his fourth NFL game. Fantasy managers have been advised for years to beware of rookie disappointments, and that remains the case at quarterback and wide receiver, where that trend didn’t alter this past season. But when it comes to running backs, the opportunities are coming earlier, and these guys are clearly, for the most part, ready to seize them. That said, it’s all about value, and not every first-year running back starred. Mixon is the obvious option who had his chances and couldn’t thrive, but then again, look at the rest of his team. It didn’t thrive, either, until the very last stunning drive of the season. The aforementioned rookies are playoff-bound. Still, I admit I haven’t always been so eager to rely on a rookie, opting for safer, more proven choices like Ingram and McCoy, and those guys were great for the Saints and Buffalo Bills, respectively. Like everything else in fantasy and reality, there are no guarantees. Most teams aren’t afraid to turn to players right out of college with less wear and tear on their bodies. We don’t know yet, of course, where the likes of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Stanford’s Bryce Love and several talented Georgia Bulldogs -- Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are fantastic! -- are going to end up in the upcoming NFL draft, but more than ever I’m going to be willing to want to be the one in my leagues to find out, even if I have to reach just a little bit. Yep, I’ve learned that I’m evolving. Who knew? Anyway, what a fantasy season it was, and hopefully you finished with a fantasy championship or two. Check out the final fantasy PPR leaders here. And below are more thoughts on what I learned and how it could affect future seasons. New coaches, new systems, new stats: No, I didn’t think Los Angeles Rams disappointment (circa 2016) Todd Gurley II would lead the fantasy world in scoring. But I did invest in several places, buoyed by the thought that he’s far better than he showed in 2016. When a new coaching staff enters, it’s like the player gets a new start, like the player moved on. Invest in skills, and when awful coaches are replaced by younger, smarter ones, definitely take another look. Second-year QBs: I found it shocking how many experts simply gave up on the Rams’ Jared Goff. Sure, he was terrible as a rookie. He also had limited coaching and help around him, whether it was the offensive line or the lack of receivers. Then it all changed and now he’s great. And Carson Wentz made MVP-like strides once the Philadelphia Eagles gave him players more reasonable than Dorial Green-Beckham to target. I’m not going to rank Chicago Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky in my 2018 top 10, but I certainly won’t be dismissive in larger leagues, and that’s without even knowing whom the new coach or receivers will be. It can’t be worse! Don’t be scared of depth charts: If Peterson hadn’t signed with the Saints, Kamara would have been selected in all leagues. We couldn’t have known he’d be that awesome, but still. So what if the foolish Houston Texans start someone other than Deshaun Watson in Week 1. You know he’s going to play and there’s intriguing upside. Was Minnesota’s breakout receiver, Adam Thielen, really their No. 2 option after Stefon Diggs? Nope. Was Baltimore find Alex Collins really going to lose playing time once he started thriving, simply because the Ravens had so many options? Nope. And Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate was a top-10 tight end yet again, despite the presence of a first-round rookie. Bill Belichick is always right: Well, we kinda knew this already, but the fact that longtime backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was so good once his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, finally let him start games, is a credit to Belichick. Why trade him at all, one might query? Well, Tom Brady probably earned another league MVP award. He’s not going away soon. The Patriots sent Garoppolo to the other conference, and I’m thinking we might have a top-10 QB on our hands. Good for the Niners! Plus, who thought Dion Lewis could handle such a lofty workload or Chris Hogan could outscore Brandin Cooks for half the season until injury or that the Pats would play excellent defense in the second half of the season, which all happened. Belichick should win top coaching honors annually. Stay healthy, Tom: All that said, for the second consecutive season a top wide receiver statistically vanished when the quarterback play was terrible, and it surprised me because it still seems a rarity. In 2016 it was Texans star DeAndre Hopkins being unable to overcome the incompetent Brock Osweiler. This past year it was Green Bay Packers star Jordy Nelson becoming basically unusable in fantasy with Brett Hundley replacing the injured Aaron Rodgers, which was odd because it didn’t harm the numbers for Davante Adams. The bottom line on this is we can’t prepare for QB injuries, so draft the top receivers regardless, but if -- and nobody should root for this -- Brady gets hurt next September and has to miss a month, I would no longer assume someone like Cooks is a top-20 option. I guess each situation is a bit different, but this is an angle we have to at least take into consideration. Nobody is truly safe: Well, we knew that already, didn’t we? Injuries are the great equalizer in fantasy sports. They take the No. 1 pick (David Johnson). They take the top wide receiver right at playoff time (Antonio Brown) and arguably the No. 2 guy in October (Odell Beckham Jr.). They take great quarterbacks young and not young (Wentz, Watson, Rodgers). Always, always be prepared with a balanced bench. It’s not about handcuffing options, but paying attention at all times, be it the offseason or Week 5 when you’re undefeated. End it in Week 16: I’m usually the one saying it doesn’t matter to me if I have to play a championship round in Week 17 because that’s still a big part of the NFL season and most top players don’t sit. But I think we learned that seemed to change this year, even with teams that did have something to play for. The Steelers and Rams games turned out to be meaningless, but their coaches sat the top options without that prior knowledge. Then other coaches played options when it didn’t seem like they needed to, such as the Jaguars. Hopkins sat with an injury nobody knew about. It’s a total guessing game! People won fantasy leagues with Andy Dalton, Kapri Bibbs and Chris Godwin leading the way, which is a different kind of achievement, I suppose, but for 2018, I’ll advise my leagues to finish it up before the final week.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, although he has yet to be a featured fantasy asset, is the rare player who will likely earn the trust of fantasy managers for Week 17. It’s a bit odd, really. We presume starter DeMarco Murray will not be available to perform through the reported torn MCL he suffered in his right knee in Week 16, leaving Henry with the expanded role that so many have been yearning for, but it’s hardly official yet. But take a look at the top running backs in the ESPN rankings. You'll see a lot of proven players there -- and then there’s Henry, who oozes upside but has mostly just teased with his talent so far. Henry actually leads the Titans with 693 rushing yards but boasts half the rushing touchdowns Murray does, which is also a bit strange since one would have thought Murray would be the one to handle the yards while the hulking, powerful Henry would barrel in for scores. Still, although Henry showed potential last season right out of Alabama, when presented with chances, he has mostly been inconsistent for fantasy managers. This season, Murray has been the one we’ve opted for each week but Henry actually has two of the three 100-yard games between them. Henry has averaged 10 rushing attempts per game over the past two months. This week he could double that workload. The Week 17 fantasy rankings are always a work in progress. A day ago it seemed like the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs would all sit their star players and now it’s likely only the Chiefs will do so from that group, to be surprisingly joined by the upstart Los Angeles Rams. But Week 17 isn’t merely about guessing on which star players will be given an opportunity to perform. Sometimes it’s about looking into the future, even if the lineup change is a forced one, as it is with the Titans. Ultimately, the Titans wanted Murray in this lead role. Now, who knows if he takes another handoff for them. Henry is a potential star in this league, big and bruising but with speed as well. They should see how he performs, and if Week 17 goes well, it should force Tennessee's hand for 2018. If Henry is promised a heavy workload and Murray is somewhere else, you're looking at a potential RB1 in drafts. For now, we worry about Week 17. One more game. Henry gets his chance. Certainly we will be intrigued! As we combine our final Karablog entry of 2017 along with a reaction to the Week 17 staff rankings and a look towards what to watch this weekend, let’s make it easy and go position by position. Have a Happy New Year!
Rich Graessle/Icon SportswireDo you know this guy? Patrick Mahomes could become a more memorable name in Kansas City than Mr. Smith.
Quarterbacks: Chiefs rookie Patrick Mahomes will start a meaningless game in Denver. He is the future for the franchise, but a huge risk in fantasy. He’s unproven -- unlike Henry, for example -- and his top options are sitting, too. I ranked him in my top 25, but not ahead of anyone we can count on. Kudos to Andy Reid for sitting his stars. I’m surprised the Eagles would risk brittle Nick Foles getting hurt. With the Jaguars, just be careful about relying on Blake Bortles. He might not play the entire game. … I love the fact the final weekend's games aren’t staggered. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton and the other top guys should all play four quarters as a result. … It's safe to say at this point that Jimmy Garoppolo is a QB1. That was the Jaguars defense he lit up. … People seem to always expect us to rank Drew Brees better than we do because of his career achievements, but he’s only the No. 9 quarterback in season-to-date scoring. That's good, but not great. Don’t expect a 20-point game. He has only one of those since September. … Watch guys like Tyrod Taylor and Jacoby Brissett have big games. I can’t imagine either will be on the same team next season, and that tends to motivate players. Running backs: One of the rankers thinks Leonard Fournette is a top-five guy. Another has him outside of the top 30. I’m kind of in the middle. It’s not fun, no. I think the top Jaguars play the first half. Perhaps Fournette can score 15 PPR points by then and backup Corey Grant can run as well. … With the Rams, we think Todd Gurley II won’t play. Malcolm Brown will. He might be a RB2 for some fantasy managers. … Chargers star Melvin Gordon could be a game-time decision, and that’s a late game. It’s dangerous. Perhaps we will have more clarity by Sunday morning. For now I have him in the top 10, but I am concerned. … While I still have Joe Mixon ranked, I expect I’ll be removing him before Friday when the Bengals will likely officially declare they'll sit him. Get ready to rely on Giovani Bernard. … This could be a big week for Peyton Barber, going up against a good Saints defense. He’s young enough that a huge game could set him up to start next season. Those in keeper formats should add him now, in case he’s a RB2 come 2018's draft day. Washington’s Samaje Perine is further along and also could be a top-20 guy next August. … Part of me expects Mike Gillislee to bookend his mostly forgettable season with multiple touchdowns, but I didn’t rank him well. Wide receivers: Adam Thielen has given fantasy managers so much this season, but is it a mistake to rely on him after a few disappointing weeks? I don’t think those games were predictive. It's the same deal with Keenan Allen. This should be a big week for both receivers. … Paxton Lynch likely starts for Denver, but that shouldn’t scare anyone with Demaryius Thomas. He’s like DeAndre Hopkins and should produce, regardless of which guy is throwing him the ball. … T.Y. Hilton has had three monster games this season. One came against Houston. T.Y. plays Houston this week. I should probably move him up even more than I already have. … Pittsburgh needs the win, so one would presume they won’t let up on DeShone Kizer. That makes things tough for Josh Gordon, as Kizer just isn’t accurate enough. … This feels like the kind of week someone like Kenny Golladay has numbers, although that’s a nugget for deep leagues only.video

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Week 17 fantasy football flex rankings 

December, 27, 2017
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video All good things must come to an end! The NFL's regular season finishes Sunday and with it comes the final championships in fantasy football. Thanks so much for checking out one man's opinions on the top running backs, wide receivers and tight ends for each week and hope your teams were all winners. See you in 2018! Let's flex! 1. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers: His production did not rise with Antonio Brown out because the opponent couldn't keep the game close. That could happen again this week. 2. Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints: Best rookie this season. Could be Bell next season if he gets more of or all the volume.

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Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) hands off to  running back Leonard Fournette (27) Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY SportsHow much will Blake Bortles, Leonard Fournette and other key Jaguars players be in the game in Week 17?
Some will say it’s lunacy for any fantasy football championship to be decided after Week 16, since the very final week of the regular season really isn’t like all the others. Not only have most playoff spots been secured, but several seeds are set and teams aren’t so eager to risk injury with their better players, so guessing playing time can be perilous. For some coaches there’s no reason to tempt fate, though some will. The Week 17 rankings always look a bit strange when backup or unproven quarterbacks rank ahead of the likes of Tom Brady and other stars, but hey, if we’re predicting playing time and statistics, we do what we’ve gotta do to prepare the masses.

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videoThe words “trust” and “loyalty” get overused when it comes to fantasy sports. Athletes are human beings, and trying to guess their health, feelings and motivations can be dangerous, but trying to figure out what constitutes trust and loyalty at this point is also, much of the time, guesswork. Don’t do it. Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t played the past six games due to suspension. Regardless of how you feel about the reasons for his six-game absence, he’s back on the field for Week 16 against the Seattle Seahawks -- a team that Los Angeles Rams star Todd Gurley II embarrassed in their supposedly terrifying Northwest home. Don’t you trust Elliott, statistically? Are you loyal to him?

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videoBack in Week 9, when the Pittsburgh Steelers did not participate in a football game because the team was on its bye, it sure looked weird not seeing the names of RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown at the top of their respective positions. Well, one of those guys isn’t appearing there again in Week 16, as Brown is nursing a significant lower-leg bruise suffered in Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots.

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Week 16 fantasy football flex rankings 

December, 20, 2017
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video For many this will be championship week, but as we’ve been noting all season long, the roster decisions still come down to one bottom line: Who do you think will score more fantasy points for this week? It’s not about loyalty or what round you drafted a player or big names or what your opponent is doing or any of this. Which player gives me the best shot of winning my matchup? That’s basically it. Here are one man’s opinions on the top running backs, wide receivers and tight ends for Week 16 in PPR formats, and please keep up with the news because things will change by Friday. May the flex be with you!

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Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley II scored four total touchdowns on Sunday.
The first time Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley II faced the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense this season was back in Week 5, at home, and he turned his 16 touches into a mere 50 total yards as the Rams lost 16-10. It was the lone game this season Gurley failed to reach double-digit fantasy points in PPR formats and gave his managers some degree of concern for the Week 15 rematch in Seattle, especially with this being the fantasy playoffs for most. After all, the Seahawks, despite missing key defenders, entered play permitting the fourth-fewest fantasy points to running backs this season.

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Watching the health of Kamara and Rodgers 

December, 15, 2017
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videoNew Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara found his name on the most playoff rosters in ESPN leagues -- and by quite a bit. Unfortunately, he didn’t even last the first quarter of his Week 14 game, leaving early with a concussion. This obviously affected many a fantasy playoff matchup. While Kamara says he’s going to play this Sunday at home against the New York Jets -- and there’s no reason to doubt it -- let’s face it, this is arguably the most-watched player in fantasy at this point and expectations are indeed high.

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videoNew England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady comes off consecutive games with single-digit fantasy points and now faces a tough road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but fantasy managers probably aren’t the least bit interested in those facts. ESPN Fantasy rankers didn’t concern themselves too much, unilaterally regarding Brady as the No. 2 quarterback in the Week 15 rankings, a shade behind Seattle's Russell Wilson. How can anyone doubt Brady, still on a real-life MVP path for this season at the age of 40? As for other Patriots, however, there might be a concern or two.

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Week 15 fantasy football flex rankings 

December, 13, 2017
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video The top of these rankings are generally led by several Steelers, and nothing changes this week for a major matchup with the Patriots. What about the Patriots, coming off a Monday night clunker? Fantasy managers have to make weekly decisions and way too often they’re directed by the most recent results. These flex rankings take myriad factors into account, and they’re not biased. Some players come off great games. Others struggled in Week 14. Taking new matchups into account, make the best decisions you can. Time to flex!

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video The top two selections from the 2016 NFL draft met in Los Angeles on Sunday and one of the games of the year resulted, as Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles topped Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams 43-35. Wentz was terrific for three quarters, throwing four touchdown passes to break the Eagles' franchise record with 33 in a season. He continued to make his case as one of fantasy’s MVPs, at least in the non-Alvin Kamara division. Then again, fantasy managers might not get to see Wentz again anytime soon, as he suffered a left-knee injury several plays before his final touchdown pass and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game, with an ACL injury feared. (Note: On Monday, the Eagles confirmed a torn ACL for Wentz.)

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videoIt’s relatively safe to say that entering the season the Denver Broncos' defense was one of the most highly regarded in the league, whether for fantasy purposes or not. Fantasy managers made the Denver D/ST the second unit off the draft board, after the Seattle Seahawks, as both were top-100 selections in ESPN average live drafts. With linebacker Von Miller, a strong pass rush and excellent secondary led by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos were surely a formidable unit, even as the team missed the playoffs last season. Turn to December and the current Broncos are 3-9, and while so much of the blame has been directed at the uninspiring quarterback play, the fact is the defense hasn’t played well. Only the Indianapolis Colts have permitted more points. The Broncos have lost eight consecutive games, and for fantasy purposes, they have been quite easy to accrue real and fantasy points against. The Miami Dolphins scored 35 points against the Broncos last week. Things are worse in road games, but still, this is why we don’t worry about strength of schedule or setup December rankings back in August or September. This week the New York Jets will travel to Denver to face a reeling team, and fantasy managers seem caught in this make-believe conundrum about how tough this should be. Denver still boasts excellent defensive players, and playing in Denver still isn’t easy, but ... is it? The Jets boast the No. 7 quarterback in fantasy this season in Josh McCown -- I know, that does seem crazy, right? -- and two of the hottest wide receivers in the sport, statistically, in Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse. Hey, check for yourself. It’s all true! Why would anyone be scared to activate these Jets this week? So while it might not be the most important matchup of the weekend and carries the smallest of postseason relevance, future barriers can be broken in this game if McCown and his cohorts produce big numbers against a defense still oddly being relied upon by too many fantasy managers. The Denver D/ST ranks 13th in fantasy scoring this season, but two of the three double-digit performances occurred in the first month. This doesn’t mean McCown isn’t ripe for a multiple-interception performance, but reputation seems like the main reason he won’t be active in more lineups this weekend. I don’t want to rely on the Jets in my playoffs, you might be thinking. OK, what does that mean? McCown has outscored Jared Goff, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Dak Prescott this season, and he’s amassed 56.2 fantasy points the past two games. Perhaps he’s not the same in road games, our small sample size could tell us, and he’s not likely to keep rushing for scores, we probably all realize, but still, this is not the matchup it seemed to be a month ago. Don’t be scared of exploiting it or relying on a pair of wide receivers each looking for a third consecutive game of 100 receiving yards. Going to California: The top draft picks from 2016 are scheduled to meet in Los Angeles, and it should be a test for both Los Angeles Rams surprise Jared Goff and Philadelphia Eagles MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Goff has faced tougher competition lately and failed to reach 20 fantasy points in three consecutive games, and the Eagles will put pressure on him. Wentz turned the ball over twice in Seattle on Sunday night but still threw for 348 yards, more than 300 of which came after halftime. It’s a rather important game for NFC playoff seeding as well, and the quarterback that loses could be viewed differently by fantasy managers for Week 15. That would be a shame, and probably misguided, but we watch anyway because this could be a playoff preview, too. Also keep an eye on whether Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is cleared from concussion protocol. He matters a great deal. Your time is gonna come: There isn’t a strong case to be made for Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, even with what sure appears like a full complement of options at his disposal. I was all-in on returning receiver Josh Gordon a week ago in a tough matchup, and now he faces the underwhelming cornerbacks of the Green Bay Packers. I nearly went with Gordon as a top-10 guy over the likes of Mike Evans and Michael Thomas, each rather disappointing this season. His colleague Corey Coleman is good as well. The running game boasts two reasonable options, even in PPR formats. The Packers are one week away from potentially getting quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, but if they manage to lose to a winless team it might mess that up. Many eyes will be on which of their two running backs gets the bulk of the love as well. Jamaal Williams started last week and performed nicely, but Aaron Jones is likely the fellow the Packers want to give a larger workload. That’s why I ranked Jones better. Good times, bad times: And in the end, there remain too many problematic running back situations flummoxing fantasy managers. The Packers are just one of them. Can Tampa Bay’s Peyton Barber do that again? What about Seattle’s Mike Davis? Which Minnesota running back is the reliable one, if either? What about the Titans and their annoying time-share, or the Broncos or the Eagles and the Jets and Cardinals and ... stop already. Where’s the holiday spirit, NFL coaches? At least we can count on Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard to have a monster game with rookie Joe Mixon sitting out, right? No, we can’t count on that. In fact, at this position, there isn’t much we can count on, except for Bill Belichick’s fantastic time-share of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. What a crazy season.

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videoIn my experience, many fantasy football managers adopt the philosophy of ignoring matchups during the fantasy playoffs and going with the players they’ve relied upon all season just because that feels right. Words like "trust" and "loyalty" are used and hey, sometimes this can work out. It’s not a sure thing that fantasy’s top overall scorer in PPR formats entering Week 14 will struggle mightily against the league’s top defense, but to stubbornly leave Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in your starting lineup simply because he’s the reason your team made it to a relevant December matchup? I'm sorry, I just don’t see things that way.

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Week 14 fantasy football flex rankings 

December, 6, 2017
12/06/17
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video It’s playoff time! Hopefully you’ve managed to get your team(s) into the fantasy postseason and the information below and on all ESPN Fantasy pages remains relevant to you. If not, then try to enjoy anyway. It takes a bit of luck to get to the playoffs and sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut. Here are one man’s PPR flex rankings, combining the best of the running backs, wide receivers and tight ends for Week 14, but still, go with your gut. Let’s flex!

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