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Fantasy fallout: How to sort out Steelers receivers? Who steps up in Cleveland?

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team, thanks in large part to their deep WR corps. Unfortunately, it has become a fantasy nightmare trying to project which of those receivers will go off in a given week.

This week, it was Diontae Johnson who returned from a back injury and broke out with nine catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans. JuJu Smith-Schuster also had his best game since Week 1, with nine catches for 85 yards.

Meanwhile, rookie Chase Claypool fell back down to earth with one catch for negative-2 yards — after he was the leading scorer at any position in ESPN leagues in Weeks 5 and 6, with a combined total of 60.7 PPR points.

Credit ESPN Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor for consistently warning fantasy managers to temper their expectations for each of these guys because Pittsburgh spreads the ball around so much. But Pryor does have a suggested priority order, if you must choose among them.

“Johnson is a must start when he’s healthy,” Pryor said of the second-year pro. “He was an early favorite of Ben Roethlisberger, getting the lion’s share of the targets, with 23 in the first two weeks. And when he returned Sunday, he resumed that top spot, with 15 targets to Smith-Schuster’s 14. Roethlisberger has also talked about emphasizing having a strong relationship with Johnson, and it’s something they’ve worked on in practice.

“Behind Johnson, I’d prioritize Smith-Schuster and then Claypool. Smith-Schuster has the rapport with Roethlisberger. And the best thing to happen to him is the development of the other receivers (to draw coverage away). With Claypool starting to break out, defenses have to respect him more. In Tennessee, the Titans put top corner Malcolm Butler on Claypool, freeing up Smith-Schuster and Johnson.

“Claypool didn’t have a great day for fantasy managers — speaking from experience. But his presence on the field opened things up for Johnson and Smith-Schuster.”

Pryor also wrote last week about how Smith-Schuster has maintained a great attitude, even when his teammates were getting more opportunities, by playing the role of Pittsburgh’s “No. 1 hype man.”

“People were talking about, ‘He only got me two points this week for fantasy.’ I was like, ‘Well, I mean, I’d rather have two points and be 5-0 than to be 1-4 and to have 25 fantasy points,'” Smith-Schuster said. “I’m having fun all the time, whether I get the ball or not, whether I get two catches for 10 yards or I get six catches for 60 yards.”

Alas, because ESPN has no option of starting Diontae Smith-Claypool in your fantasy lineups, you’ll probably be stuck guessing each week as long as the Steelers keep winning.

Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:

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Stephania Bell explains why Kenyan Drake will need more tests on his injured ankle after the initial X-rays.

With Kenyan Drake expected to miss a few weeks because of a slight ligament tear in his ankle, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss confirmed that Edmonds will move into the lead RB role until Drake is healthy enough to return. That makes Edmonds an obvious priority on the fantasy waiver wire if he’s available in your league.

Edmonds was already cutting into Drake’s value as a runner and receiver in Arizona. He stepped up big-time in Sunday night’s win over Seattle, with 145 yards from scrimmage. It’s hard to recommend any other waiver priorities behind him, though, given that Weinfuss said the Cardinals will go with a “group effort” from running backs Eno Benjamin, D.J. Foster and Jonathan Ward.

Look who’s back! Green has 15 catches on 24 targets for 178 yards the past two weeks. “Now that he has found his footing in his return from injury, he is a dependable option for fantasy managers in all leagues,” according to Bengals reporter Ben Baby.

“After an uncharacteristic amount of frustration on Week 5 against Baltimore, Green has found a groove with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow,” said Baby, who wrote last week that Green is feeling like his “old self again.”

“Burrow’s first target to Green in Week 7 was a back-shoulder throw that required a sense of trust between quarterback and receiver,” Baby said. “The completion, along with the rest of the game from Green, shows he will be a big option for the Bengals’ offense, especially as the receiver rotation has appeared to shrink as the season progresses.”

Although that rotation still includes Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, Baby said the sheer volume of Cincinnati’s passing attack (Burrow completed 35 passes for 406 yards on Sunday) ensures plenty of quality targets.

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss which of the Browns’ pass-catchers will see more volume now that Odell Beckham Jr. is out for the season with a torn ACL.

As Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, it will take “multiple guys” to replace WR Odell Beckham Jr. after he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Sunday. But Browns reporter Jake Trotter said that won’t necessarily deflate Cleveland’s passing attack in general.

Receivers Jarvis Landry (who revealed last week that he has been playing through a broken rib) and Rashard Higgins (who caught six passes for 110 yards Sunday) could both see an uptick in fantasy value. Tight end Harrison Bryant (four catches for 56 yards and two TDs Sunday) is more of a deep-league consideration.

“Cleveland’s ceiling is obviously lower with Beckham out for the season. Its floor, however, could be a different story,” Trotter said. “Over the last two seasons, Baker Mayfield and Beckham have the lowest completion percentage of any duo in the NFL. With OBJ out, Mayfield went through his progressions and found the open man against Cincinnati instead of worrying about forcing the ball to an elite playmaker. The result was a franchise-record 21 straight completions and five touchdown passes, including the game winner. Mayfield will have to prove he can do the same against somebody other than the Bengals, but the chemistry he’s flashed with Landry and even Higgins has been more consistent than anything he ever had with Beckham, despite OBJ’s game-breaking talent.”

Just because the rookie tight end Okwuegbunam seemingly came out of nowhere to catch seven passes for 60 yards in Week 7 doesn’t mean he should be dismissed once starter Noah Fant is back to full health.

Again, we’re talking very deep leagues here. But Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold said there is a “comfort level” between quarterback Drew Lock and the fourth-round draft pick since they played together at Missouri. Okwuegbunam was inactive the first four weeks after being slowed by a hip injury in training camp.

“He’ll get targets when he’s on the field because Lock will look to him. He’s got 13 targets in 55 snaps played in his two games. He’s also going to get a touchdown or two because they like him in their red zone groupings,” Legwold said. “Fant’s health will influence all of the snap counts at the position, but Okwuegbunam is going to get his playing time. And I would say he’d be in that 18-25 snap range even when Fant is healthy, at least as things stand right now.”

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss if Nelson Agholor has done enough for fantasy managers to consider adding him to their rosters.

Obviously, fantasy managers are having trouble buying in to Agholor’s recent surge, based on the veteran receiver’s track record of inconsistent production (he was only 1.8% rostered in ESPN leagues before catching five passes for 107 yards and a TD in Week 7).

But Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez also described him as someone who can’t be dismissed.

“As long as he continues to produce, the more he will stay on the field,” Gutierrez said. “Yeah, I know, a chicken-and-the-egg kind of statement. But Agholor, who was initially signed for depth after the Raiders drafted a pair of receivers in Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards to join returners Tyrell Williams and Zay Jones, has been a revelation. Especially with Williams on IR and Edwards out with a knee injury. Consider: Four of Agholor’s 15 catches have been TDs.

“Still, the nasty case of the dropsies he experienced in Philadelphia showed up late against Tampa Bay, with one ball bouncing off Agholor’s hands for an interception. So buyer beware.”

As ESPN’s Saints reporter, I can’t promise that you’ll see consistent production from the undrafted rookie receiver going forward (see teammate Tre’Quan Smith‘s mix of big and quiet days as an example). The Saints could get both receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back within a couple of weeks, which will limit Callaway’s opportunities.

But Callaway has certainly earned the trust of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees after he stepped up with eight catches for 75 yards on 10 targets while Thomas and Sanders were sidelined on Sunday. He also had a potential TD catch that was nullified by a teammate’s offensive pass interference call.

If you’re pickings are slim, Callaway should rank right alongside Smith as a consideration this week if Thomas and/or Sanders remains out.

Tight end Evan Engram was so close to having a long-awaited big game on Thursday — before his two dropped passes put another damper on his disappointing season. Meanwhile, receiver Sterling Shepard stepped up as a trusted option for the Giants, with six catches for 59 yards and a TD.

“Engram’s time will come. It has just been a painful wait,” Giants reporter Jordan Raanan said. “The Giants are committed to their tight end, who also happens to be their most explosive offensive weapon. They put an emphasis on getting him the ball Thursday night. Engram had nine targets and two carries. Expect that to continue, and eventually, he will get back to the guy who averaged over 50 yards per game receiving, rather than the 31.9 he’s produced through seven weeks.

“Shepard, however, is a much surer bet to produce this week as long as he’s healthy. Shepard returned from missing four games with turf toe and immediately became Daniel Jones‘ most trusted target. Shepard had eight passes thrown in his direction on 23 routes run. While that target percentage won’t continue, Shepard will be an integral part of this passing game, especially if Darius Slayton‘s foot problem lingers.”

Niners reporter Nick Wagoner preached caution after Aiyuk had his first big game in Week 3. He was right to do so, given that the rookie receiver had quieter performances the next three weeks.

But Wagoner said it’s reasonable to feel more confident in Aiyuk after he caught six passes for 115 yards in Week 7, especially considering that fellow receiver Deebo Samuel is battling a hamstring injury, and the 49ers are about to face Seattle’s vulnerable pass defense.

“While Aiyuk might see more attention from opposing defenses (if Samuel is sidelined), he still has George Kittle and a much better run game to help open up opportunities for him. Those are things he didn’t necessarily have when he flashed earlier in the season,” Wagoner said. “Also, Aiyuk is clearly growing more comfortable in the offense and has expanded the variety of routes and things he’s doing within the offense, in addition to building further rapport with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

“Does that mean 100-yard games every week? Probably not. But I do think there will be more of a concerted effort to feed him the ball until Samuel is back to full speed.”

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Stephania Bell tells fantasy managers not to base roster decisions on Chris Carson’s MRI results and says they should wait until Carson is able to practice again.

This is no surprise, but Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson confirmed that Hyde will become the primary tailback if Chris Carson has to miss time because of his foot injury. The veteran stepped up when Carson got hurt Sunday and ran 15 times for 68 yards and a TD.

Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas would still see time in rotational roles. All three can catch the ball. But Hyde has what Homer and Dallas don’t: the size and physicality to approximate what Carson gives Seattle on early downs,” Henderson said. “That’s why there was some preference in the organization to Hyde, even when the Seahawks had an offer out to Devonta Freeman [in the offseason].”

Washington reporter John Keim said he still expects a “game-by-game situation” with the RB rotation. But it was a good sign for Gibson’s progress when the rookie ran the ball 20 times for 128 yards and a TD on Sunday. Gibson had just 13 touches a week earlier, while veteran J.D. McKissic played a larger role — and Keim said the team acknowledged that Gibson has to learn while transitioning from playing receiver in college.

“They were able to play with a real lead for the first time this season, and that mattered, allowing them to get more runs,” Keim said of Washington’s 25-3 rout of Dallas in Week 7. “But Gibson continues to improve. He’s been much better at not trying to turn every play into a huge gain and, instead, is seeing the value of those 3-to-4-yard runs on a first down.

“But I still think each guy has a defined role, including Peyton Barber, so I’d proceed with some caution.”

McKissic actually played one more snap than Gibson (34 to 33). But Keim said the team likes the versatility of both backs, as well as Gibson’s big-play ability. Keim pointed out that Gibson’s longest run (a 40-yarder) came on a well-designed play fake when he was lined up as a slot receiver while McKissic was in the backfield.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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