For a team as prolific as the Green Bay Packers, defending Super Bowl champions and still undefeated as we hit December, they're sure not relying much on the running game. James Starks is 33rd in standard fantasy scoring among running backs, ownable in theory but hardly starter-worthy since consecutive 11-point performances in Weeks 1 and 2. He's scored one touchdown all season. Ryan Grant still hasn't scored any. And fullback John Kuhn has scored six times, but the 20 rushing yards this entire season are kind of a downer. The Packers are fourth in the NFL in total yards -- and first in points -- but 28th in rushing yards.
Enter undrafted rookie Brandon Saine, an Ohio State product who very well could end up stealing touches in the final month of the season, especially as the champs prepare for another long playoff run. It's one thing for people to debate whether the best player in fantasy, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, might sit in Week 17 if all regular-season accomplishments are clinched. I don't have that answer, though I have thought about handcuffing Matt Flynn to Rodgers in one ultra-deep league. It's another thing to wonder if a young, healthy running back like Saine might be more productive than the ones seeing touches and doing little with them, especially since we know Starks is hurting.
So it is that Saine fits the bill as a sneaky fantasy pickup, and should be kept on radar screens the next few weeks, and not only for his potential role in Week 17. Saine saw action on Thanksgiving, rushing for 6 and 4 yards on separate fourth-quarter drives and catching a 9-yard screen on the first drive of the third quarter. It wasn't simply one late drive he magically appeared. Sure, Starks limped off the field with a sore knee and became a non-second-half factor, but perhaps he misses more time. Why risk it? Then again, perhaps he's just not effective enough to keep seeing touches.
After all, one year ago Starks made his NFL debut in Week 12, ran a bit the following week and got hurt, and was back in Week 16, having leaped to the front of the team's running back depth chart. Saine could follow this path. "He was always telling me to stay ready," Saine said of Starks to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He told me that last year, the way it started off for him, he wasn't able to play. He said to keep working, keep battling. That's what I've been doing."
In the playoffs last season, Starks saw more than 20 touches per game. I'm not saying Saine will do this, but the Packers had no issue introducing a new key member of the offense late last season, and it's not like Saine would be leaping Arian Foster or Adrian Peterson here. Starks is averaging 50 rushing yards per game. That's just a few plays for Marshawn Lynch, right Philadelphia Eagles defense? Sorry, I'm not bitter. Nice dream 6-10 season!
Anyway, while most people would probably look at bad NFL teams for fantasy help the final weeks -- like Philly's Dion Lewis if LeSean McCoy succumbs to injury. I think that's a mistake. I don't think teams in the tank suddenly put up big numbers Christmas or New Year's week. I watch good teams with hungry fourth-stringers seeking opportunity.
Using that logic, players other than Saine and probably Packers wide receiver James Jones to seriously watch for late-December numbers include:
• Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams, San Francisco 49ers: Hunter is wise Frank Gore insurance. Surely the Niners want a first-round bye, but there's a bigger picture here. Hunter looks like he can play, and we know Gore's past. As for wide receiver Williams, he caught five passes for 54 yards and a score in Week 11, and Braylon Edwards is clearly not healthy nor productive.
• Chris Ivory and Devery Henderson, New Orleans Saints: This team has so many running backs, but I could see the rookie (Mark Ingram), the overworked (Darren Sproles) and the brittle (Pierre Thomas) seeing fewer touches. Same with Marques Colston. Remember, Ivory led the Saints in rushing a season ago. He's no rookie. Henderson was silent for two months but -- voila! -- looked good on Monday night.
• Shane Vereen and Tiquan Underwood, New England Patriots: It looks like Vereen, if healthy, has passed Stevan Ridley on the depth chart. That could matter this week up 40 points on the hapless Indianapolis Colts, and in a few weeks as well. As for Wes Welker, he's been hurt before in Week 17. And Deion Branch is not a young man. I chose Underwood over Chad Ochocinco. You should, too.
• Ricky Williams and Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens: Each is far more popular than the normal names in this sneaky blog entry. But I don't think Ray Rice will see a drop-off in touches ever. Perhaps Williams gets more touches because the Ravens will enjoy some bad run defenses (Cleveland Browns twice, Indianapolis Colts). Smith is so inconsistent. The Ravens aren't like the Patriots depth-wise. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost twice to the Ravens; nobody will be sitting for them in Week 17.
• I think the Houston Texans could be sitting Arian Foster and Andre Johnson in the final week, but Ben Tate is owned in most leagues and I don't see the T.J. Yates-to-Kevin Walter connection mattering much. Perhaps Tate will sit as well and Derrick Ward gets some run? I could see it.
Well, file some of these names away for later in December, or act now in deeper formats and get ahead of the curve. Best of luck the rest of Week 13 and beyond, and have a great weekend!