Tonight marks the start of Week 11 of the NFL season, as the Browns host the Steelers. This division rivalry should produce a close game with plenty of rushing attempts. The game currently has an over/under set at 40, with the home Browns favored by -2.5.
James Conner missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury but was taken off the injury report on Wednesday and appears ready for a full workload.
Ryan Switzer and Benny Snell are out but would have been backups this week if they were healthy.
Joe Haden is questionable with an illness. They will need him against Odell Beckham Jr.
Defensive lineman Oliver Vernon won’t play again this week. He’s a staunch run defender, and his absence is an upgrade for James Conner.
When James Conner has played, he’s played well, but health has been a problem for him this season. On average, he’s seen 18 touches a game, which includes over four receptions per game. He’s turned those touches into 616 total yards on 126 touches for six touchdowns. In his last game, he rushed for a season-high 145 yards and a touchdown against Miami.
The Browns allow a healthy 4.86 yards per carry to running backs while their defensive line ranks 28th in DVOA against the run. On the season, they’ve allowed the twelfth-most fantasy points to running backs and the ninth-most per touch. With the game likely low scoring and close, Conner should be able to push 20 touches and is my No. 1 for the captain’s chair.
Nick Chubb is the other player with a consistent workload, as he averages 22.3 touches per game. Even with Kareem Hunt back last week, Chubb had 20 carries and two receptions. Hunt ended up with four carries and seven receptions, as they often were on the field at the same time. Both have fantasy appeal on this one-game slate, but Chubb is still entrenched as the lead back and remains a safe play.
Chubb’s biggest trouble will be the Steelers defense, which allows the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to running backs. They’ve also been stingy to receiving backs, ranking fourth in DVOA, and allowing just 37 yards receiving per game. The combo of Hunt and Chubb is a wrinkle that will likely help Chubb see better running lanes, and his workload remains one of the best in the business.
After Chubb, the most-used players are Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Both have nearly identical target numbers, with 79 for OBJ and 77 for Landry, while Landry has a fantasy point per game lead over Beckham. Landry remains the safer play each week while Beckham has the higher upside but without much proof of that this season. The Steelers defense against wide receivers has been middling, as they rank 18th in fantasy points allowed. But they haven’t let one receiver to top 100 yards, and only Zach Pascal has hit double-digit fantasy points with 13, in their last seven matchups.
The Browns might want to attack the Steelers through the air, as there are winnable matchups in the passing game, but their offensive line will need to hold up against the Steelers’ potent pass rush.
JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t done much of late, and he’s risky, especially at $10,500, but he gets the best matchup of the Steelers receivers on Thursday. With Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams back from injuries, the Browns secondary is much better on the outside than it has been. Smith-Schuster plays in the slot and will see Jermaine Whitehead, Eric Murray, and T.J. Carrie.
Captains: James Conner ($14,500), Nick Chubb ($14,000)
Core Players: Jarvis Landry ($12,000), JuJu Smith-Schuster ($10,500)
Kareem Hunt ($9,000)
Hunt brings fresh legs to this matchup and showed last week that he’s ready to go, and the team wants to utilize his ability. We can’t count on a big workload, but his skills in space, coupled with his target load last week, give him upside in a game without much upside.
Vance McDonald ($7,500)
McDonald received seven targets in each of his previous two games, which tied for first last week and was second on the team the week before. He’s had varying results but did find the end zone against the Colts two weeks ago. The Browns rank ninth-worst at fantasy points allowed to tight ends, giving McDonald a decent shot at finding the end zone this week.
Rashard Higgins ($6,000)
Higgins scored a touchdown on his only catch last week, but that may vault him into a more significant workload. Antonio Callaway was benched for disciplinary reasons, and there’s a good shot Higgins will continue to play ahead of him. Mayfield and Higgins have a good rapport, and if I’m going to gamble on a cheap receiver from Cleveland, he’s my guy.
James Washington ($9,500)
Washington has nice upside, as he’s coming off two solid games but will have trouble against Denzel Ward. The hope for him is that Mason Rudolph will give him a chance at 50/50 deep shots more than once, because he can make those plays.