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Reporters give advice on Khalil Herbert, Jonathan Taylor, more

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After only three running backs topped the 30-point mark in the first four weeks of the NFL season in ESPN standard fantasy football scoring, four topped 30 points in Week 5.

It’s probably fair to say three of them did largely what was expected, as each was ranked among the top 10 entering the season.

Los Angeles Chargers dual threat Austin Ekeler led the fantasy charge. He had two touchdowns rushing and one receiving, compiling 119 yards. Indianapolis Colts star Jonathan Taylor had by far his best game of 2021 on Monday night. He also scored via the ground and the air, and, in a surprising twist, had more receiving yards (116) than rushing yards (53). Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry did what he does — rushed for 130 yards and three TDs with no receptions.

The guy fantasy managers want to know more about is Myles Gaskin of the Miami Dolphins, who scored as many fantasy points in Week 5 (31.9) as he did in Weeks 1 to 4 combined. A solid fantasy option in 2020, his usage had dwindled over the first month.

ESPN fantasy sports researcher Kyle Soppe, who crafts the 32 questions herein, wants to know what to expect from Gaskin, too. He also has questions about Taylor, help for Henry and much more.

This is the first of nine consecutive weeks in which teams will have byes. The Jets, Falcons, Saints and 49ers are off this week. Here are the questions and answers for Week 6 of the 2021 NFL season.

AFC EAST

Can Dawson Knox carve out six to eight targets in this offense, or is his fantasy value going to continue to depend on touchdowns?

Can he be relied on to have six to eight targets consistently? Probably not. He has had only one game this season with more than five targets. There are too many weapons on this offense, and Knox often plays a valuable role as a blocker. He has, however, been targeted in the red zone often and has scored a touchdown in each of the past four games. Knox’s role could expand as the season goes on, but right now his value still primarily depends on touchdowns. — Alaina Getzenberg


Week 4 or Week 5: Which version of Myles Gaskin is closer to the one fantasy managers can rely on moving forward?

Expecting a running back to garner 10 targets on an offense with Mike Gesicki, Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker is a Bikram yoga stretch — but so is expecting the Dolphins’ most talented back to touch the ball only twice. So the answer is somewhere in the middle. Miami is the worst team in the NFL at running the ball so Gaskin’s production will have to come in the passing game. Luckily, he has plenty of chemistry with Tua Tagovailoa, who is expected to return this week. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry think Myles Gaskin deserves more opportunities in Week 6.


The pass-catcher in this offense fantasy managers can most count on for production is …

Jakobi Meyers. Yes, he had a tough drop Sunday in Houston that he said was a result of getting lost in the lights, but here’s the number that stands out: 94.2. That’s the percentage of offensive snaps he has played this season, which easily tops any other pass-catcher. The TD production should be coming and the bottom line is this: Meyers is Mac Jones‘ top security option. — Mike Reiss

AFC NORTH

What has changed to make Marquise Brown a scoring machine since the midway point of last season, and can it sustain?

Yes, as long as he continues to get open. Brown has caught 11 touchdown passes since Week 12 of last season (12 games), which are the most in the NFL over that span. His average yards of separation on those touchdowns has been 3.7. That’s the most of any Baltimore player with multiple touchdowns. Lamar Jackson has great field vision, and he doesn’t miss the open man often. — Jamison Hensley


Did Samaje Perine earn himself a role moving forward, even as Joe Mixon gets healthier?

It’s hard to see Perine carving out a bigger role if and when Mixon is fully healthy. There just isn’t enough snap share to go around for Perine to be a quality fantasy option. On top of that, he’s currently on the COVID-19 reserve list. The bigger concern: If Perine can’t go and RB Chris Evans plays well, Evans might supplant Perine as the RB2 for fantasy purposes. — Ben Baby


Forty-two points, no Jarvis Landry … and just three Odell Beckham Jr. targets. Time for fantasy managers to give up on the former star?

Give up? Not yet. But put him on your bench for now? Probably so. OBJ has had some opportunities since returning in Week 3. But he and Baker Mayfield continue to struggle to get on the same page. Mayfield missed Beckham for a wide-open TD in Week 4 at Minnesota. Then Beckham dropped a pass off his chest on fourth down in Week 5 against the Chargers, which could’ve also turned into a TD. This is not a connection to trust right now. But Beckham’s talent within Cleveland’s offense makes it too soon to fold the hand. — Jake Trotter


Can the current version of Ben Roethlisberger challenge defenses downfield enough to make Chase Claypool‘s big Week 5 more than a one-week spike?

Yes, as long as the offensive line continues to hold up. Roethlisberger’s arm is far from shot, but he needs protection from the pass rush and time to let those plays develop downfield. And, more quality play from offensive line will keep the run game going, opening up the vertical passing game. As long as the offensive line continues playing well, Roethlisberger and Claypool will continue to generate big plays. — Brooke Pryor

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry believe Chase Claypool and Najee Harris could get additional work with JuJu Smith-Schuster out.

AFC SOUTH

Chris Moore or Chris Conley: Which Week 5 surprise producer has you most interested?

Moore. Conley has been used primarily as a blocking wide receiver and had just three catches on six targets in his first four games. He is also in his seventh NFL season and has had a similar role in the past. Moore was playing in just his second game for the Texans — the first he played just two snaps — and played so well the Texans signed him to the active roster after the game. However, both players will be affected when rookie receiver Nico Collins returns from injured reserve. He returned to practice on Wednesday. — Sarah Barshop


The long TD reception for Jonathan Taylor was nice, but what should fantasy managers read into the Week 5 carry distribution?

Taylor has and will continue to be the primary back. The 76-yard touchdown on the screen was just an added bonus to the offense. The Colts have constantly felt they were going to get a big play off a screen at some point with one of their running backs. The bigger question is: Who will be the No. 2 back behind Taylor? It was just two weeks ago that Marlon Mack requested a trade. But he has 15 carries over the past two games compared to just six for Nyheim Hines. — Mike Wells

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Field Yates praises Jonathan Taylor for his speed and ability to make big plays.


Is Dan Arnold worth our time at a position that lacks production league-wide?

He’s worth monitoring for a few more weeks, at least. He’s the Jaguars’ best pass-catching tight end and the Jaguars do plan to line him up in the slot or out wide at times to help make up for the loss of DJ Chark Jr. He’s got good speed, too, and he’s pretty good after the catch. Arnold has played in only two games yet is already third on the team in YAC with 57 yards. That’s more than Marvin Jones Jr.’s total (36) and what Chark compiled in little more than three games (26). — Michael DiRocco


A.J. Brown was drafted as WR7. What is your confidence in him turning it around sooner than later?

It’s very likely Brown turns things around soon because he’s working towards being healthy again. Brown was dealing with a hamstring injury that limited him to eight snaps in Week 2 and kept him from playing in Week 3. Things will only get better when Julio Jones returns from a hamstring injury of his own. Having Jones on the field will keep teams from double-covering Brown, which should allow him to get open easier. — Turron Davenport

AFC WEST

Courtland Sutton now has two big weeks and three down weeks. Will he establish consistency with time, or are we in for a roller coaster ride all season?

Don’t say you weren’t warned. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is going to move the ball to where the coverage takes him. When defenses roll the dice and match up with Sutton one-on-one, he’s going to get the ball plenty. But in the big picture, Sutton will get plenty of targets. The next thing to watch on that front is when Jerry Jeudy returns to the lineup — he has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the opener — and that could happen in the coming two or three weeks. After Jeudy returns Sutton could get even more one-on-one looks from defenses, especially in the red zone, even as his total targets might go down some. — Jeff Legwold


Is this Darrel Williams‘ backfield with Clyde Edwards-Helaire sidelined, or do you expect more of a committee approach (or just a flat-out abandonment of the ground game)?

Expect Williams to get most of the work. The Chiefs are comfortable with him in all situations while Jerick McKinnon has played most often on passing downs. And while Andy Reid might like to abandon the running game, the Chiefs are facing too many light boxes for that to happen. — Adam Teicher

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Matthew Berry expects Darrel Williams to have increased fantasy production with Clyde Edwards-Helaire missing at least three weeks.


Which Raiders offense is the one we will see moving forward: the one from Weeks 1 to 3 or the one from Weeks 4 to 5?

How about neither, or, the one from seven years ago? With Jon Gruden gone, offensive playcalling duties now fall to offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who was actually the playcaller for the Raiders way back in (checks notes) 2014. Yes, Derek Carr’s rookie season. That Raiders team lost its first 10 games and Dennis Allen was fired after an 0-4 start. The difference is: This Raiders team actually has weapons on offense, and, as Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller said, Olson will simplify things on offense. Stay tuned. — Paul Gutierrez


Justin Herbert is great, but will this offense ever have a third pass-catcher (WR/TE) worth our time in fantasy?

TE Donald Parham should be a safe bet, especially after he scored on a 29-yard pass play and converted a two-point conversion vs. Cleveland. And he’s 6-foot-8. — Shelley Smith

NFC EAST

True or false: Counting on Amari Cooper for a high target count is unwise?

Relying on anybody on the Cowboys’ offense for weekly fantasy success is always dicey because of how they run their offense. They don’t have to rely on one guy. They don’t have to rely on one aspect. They can run it with Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard. They can throw it to Cooper, CeeDee Lamb or Dalton Schultz. And they have shown they can succeed in any fashion. Cooper will have some big games as the year goes on, but he might mix in a three-catch game as well because the Cowboys can run it so effectively that his targets will be limited. I’ll say this for anybody asking fantasy questions about the Cowboys: Buyer beware. — Todd Archer


The Kadarius Toney production will A) disappear when everyone is healthy, B) stay when everybody is healthy or C) stay because I’m not sure this roster ever gets healthy?

It’s not “B.” Toney will not produce at the level he did last week when nobody else was on the field. There just won’t be enough targets for that to happen on a regular basis. So “A” is the most likely answer, although his production will still decrease significantly. There is a chance that Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay return next week. And Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton will be back Sunday. — Jordan Raanan

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Field Yates advocates for fantasy football managers to consider Kadarius Toney for their teams.


Due to Jalen Hurts‘ passing shortcomings and style of play, is he the only Eagle fantasy managers can count on each week?

The offense has had large spikes and dips through six weeks, and that’s likely to continue. That said, Dallas Goedert should develop into one of the more productive tight ends now that Zach Ertz has been traded to the Cardinals, and DeVonta Smith will have more good weeks than bad as the clear No. 1 receiver in Philly. — Tim McManus


What do you make of Terry McLaurin‘s recent inefficiencies: The result of increased focus by defenses and thus a long-term concern, or just a blip on the radar?

Even though he caught only six of 13 targets two weeks ago vs. Atlanta, he did manage 123 yards and two touchdowns. So it wasn’t efficient, but he was productive. Against the Saints (4-46 on 11 targets), you can credit corner Marshon Lattimore. I don’t think it was just about Lattimore, though, nor was it about extra attention. It was as much about quarterback Taylor Heinicke being late on some throws and not having the arm strength to compensate. On a couple occasions, McLaurin was open for a big gain but because the ball was late — and the corner or safety was close enough — it fell incomplete. But McLaurin had done his job. So the concern is less about him or how defenses are playing him and more about Heinicke needing to be on-time. I would not jump off the McLaurin bandwagon yet, though he now has a hamstring injury. — John Keim

NFC NORTH

Who is Khalil Herbert, and will he be the go-to back with Damien Williams and David Montgomery both out?

Herbert is a late-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech who primarily handled kickoff return duties before Montgomery went on injured reserve. Let’s not put the 5-foot-9 Herbert in the Hall of Fame after one game, but the rookie ran hard versus the Raiders last week (18 carries, 75 yards). He’ll be the main back against the Packers, no doubt. The Bears have to run the football effectively to have any shot of beating Aaron Rodgers & Co. — Jeff Dickerson


Three straight down weeks for TJ Hockenson: patience or panic?

Patience. It’s no secret Hockenson entered this year with high expectations and after the first two weeks, he appeared to be the focal point of the offense. He came out hot, becoming the first Lions tight end to record eight receptions in consecutive contests, but has failed to catch more than four in a game since. Entering this week, Hockenson was once again limited in practice, missing Wednesday’s session while dealing with a knee injury. But more importantly, teams are game-planning against him, specifically while Hockenson is focused on “staying engaged.” His goal is to be a three-down tight end; he isn’t discouraged, and neither is the team. “The bottom line is we’ve got to get him going,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. — Eric Woodyard


Is AJ Dillon‘s role set to expand? How many touches do you think he averages per game the rest of the way?

Well, coach Matt LaFleur did say this week when asked about Dillon, “We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him the ball.” He especially raved about Dillon’s improved hands as a receiver, so perhaps that’s a place where his production can continue or even spike. But this team is about Davante Adams first and Aaron Jones second, and it doesn’t seem like that’s changing right now. — Rob Demovsky

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry examine AJ Dillon’s fantasy football stock after his big game in Week 5.


Dalvin Cook averaged 25 touches through two weeks … will he have another game with that level of work this season?

With one game remaining at Carolina before a Week 7 bye, it’s possible we don’t see Cook shoulder a load that big until after he has had more time to let his right ankle heal. The safest play would be to let Cook take the next two weeks off so he can be as close to fully healthy as possible when the Vikings host Dallas on Halloween. Alexander Mattison, however, is dealing with a shoulder injury, so Cook may have to tack on more touches against the Panthers instead of split carries with his backup. Therefore, it’s possible he trends closer to 20 or so touches in Week 6 after sitting out last Sunday. — Courtney Cronin

NFC SOUTH

Robby Anderson: The targets will eventually pay off, or the production is never going to happen?

The production will come in time but likely not to the level of 2020. His depth of routes has changed and quarterback Sam Darnold has developed a comfort level with DJ Moore that is working. When Christian McCaffrey returns, there will be fewer opportunities. — David Newton


Should Antonio Brown be considered the WR1 in this offense the rest of the way?

No. This is merely how teams choose to to defend the Bucs each week and where they slide their coverage. Mike Evans had two touchdowns just last week. Eagles corner Darius Slay was all over Evans on Thursday night but the pendulum will swing the other way and Evans will get more opportunities. — Jenna Laine

NFC WEST

Which running back do you think holds the most fantasy value the rest of the way?

It’s Chase Edmonds, almost without a doubt, because of his two-way ability. He leads the Cardinals in rushing yards and is second on the team in receptions. Even though he has fewer rushing yards than James Conner and no touchdowns, Edmonds’ volume will make him the right move. — Josh Weinfuss


Do you envision Darrell Henderson Jr. dominating the backfield touches, or will Sony Michel remain a threat to cap his touch ceiling?

At this point, Henderson has cemented himself as the go-to back, which Sean McVay said would be the case even after trading for Michel. If ever there was a time for Henderson and Michel to both be suited, but for Michel to see a larger workload than his counterpart, it would have been in Week 5 with Henderson coming off a rib cartilage injury. But even then, Henderson had 18 touches to Michel’s 12. So watch for Henderson to continue to get the bulk of the touches with Michel supplementing. — Lindsey Thiry


When Chris Carson returns, do you think the team will limit his touches?

Carson, who was put on injured reserve Friday, hasn’t consistently gotten 20-plus touches per game since the 2019 season, and I don’t see that changing when he returns. His neck injury sounds like it’ll be something the team has to monitor the rest of the way, and while the Seahawks will want to lean more on their running game to help out Geno Smith until Russell Wilson gets back, they’ll probably do so with the combination of Carson, Alex Collins and Rashaad Penny (once he’s off IR) as opposed to Carson alone. — Brady Henderson



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Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford say toe OK; not feeling pressure to win first playoff game

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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford says his toe is doing OK and shouldn’t impact him in Monday night’s wild-card playoff game against the visiting Arizona Cardinals.

And no, you can’t see it.

Stafford took a friendly dig at Aaron Rodgers during his weekly media session Thursday, a moment of levity amid weightier questions about the quarterback trying to win a playoff game for the first time in his 13-year NFL career.

Stafford said his toe was landed on awkwardly late last Sunday as the NFC West champion Rams lost 27-24 to the San Francisco 49ers.

“But it’s doing OK,” he said. “I’ll be out there. I’ll be good to go.”

The Rodgers joke came when Stafford was asked whether his toe will impact how he steps into throws. The Green Bay Packers quarterback presented his bare foot to reporters during a Zoom session in November as proof he didn’t have “COVID toe” but a fracture instead.

“No, I don’t think so,” Stafford said. “I think I should be feeling really good on Monday. I’d show it to you but I don’t want to do that. That’s for other guys to do. I’ll keep my toes to myself in this one. But it’s doing good. I should be all right.”

The Rams listed Stafford as a full participant on Thursday, though that was an estimation as they held a walk-through.

Stafford was asked how much he feels as though he needs to prove himself, having not won a playoff game yet. He lost in all three of his appearances while with the Detroit Lions.

“Every time I step on the field I’m proving myself, whether it’s a preseason game or a regular-season game, practice, a playoff game,” he said. “I want to go out there and play well. This is just another opportunity to do that.”

Stafford said the pressure isn’t any different in Los Angeles compared to Detroit. The expectations might be greater, however, given how much the Rams have loaded up their roster in a bid to win Super Bowl LVI on their home field.

That included last offseason’s trade for Stafford, who delivered a typically prolific regular season with 4,886 yards (third in the NFL) and a career-high-tying 41 touchdown passes (second) over 17 games. His 17 interceptions were tied for most in the league with rookie Trevor Lawrence, however. He tossed seven interceptions over the final three games and lost a fumble in that stretch.

“I love the competitiveness, the way we win that division, win 12 games with him, the standards that he has for himself,” coach Sean McVay said. “One of the best things I love the most about this guy is the first thing he’s going to do is take extreme ownership and accountability for the things he can do better. I think there’s an occupational hazard with some of the turnovers as a competitor. They certainly don’t all fall on him. But the answer is yes, I’m very pleased with him.

“Looking forward to playing very clean ball in the postseason, trusting his teammates, playing the way that he’s capable of, and if he just plays within himself, I trust really good things will happen for this team.”

McVay said he doesn’t think the 33-year-old Stafford needs to prove he can win a playoff game.

“I think that he’s got an established résumé,” McVay said. “I think that’s something you want to be able to do. He was instrumental in leading us to our first divisional title that we’ve had since ’18 and that’s a big deal, but now it’s the next step. But I think his body of work speaks for itself and I don’t think you can just confine it into, ‘Oh he hasn’t won a playoff game.'”

Stafford’s playoff losses came after the 2011 (at New Orleans), 2014 (at Dallas) and 2016 (at Seattle) seasons. McVay noted that the Cowboys game might have gone differently if not for a controversial call. Detroit was ahead by three points midway through the fourth quarter when officials flagged Dallas for pass interference on third down only to reverse the call, leading to a Detroit punt and an eventual blown lead.

“It was a bad call that I’m probably going to get fined for even mentioning,” McVay said. “In all seriousness, here’s what’s crazy about this game — the narrative is that, but more than likely, if that call isn’t made, he probably has won a playoff game and it’s like, did he really play any differently as a result of that?”

McVay said cornerback Darious Williams will be good to go Monday night despite his shoulder injury. The team listed its starter opposite Jalen Ramsey as a full participant Thursday. Safety Taylor Rapp is making good progress, per McVay, but remains sidelined while in concussion protocol.

Rapp’s concussion and fellow safety Jordan Fuller’s season-ending ankle injury led the Rams to bring 37-year-old Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement this week and sign him to their practice squad. McVay said his exact role is still to be determined, but Weddle left no doubt that he expects to play Monday and said he wouldn’t be here otherwise.

“Once you play as long as I did, football becomes who are,” he said. “So even though I haven’t been playing football, I still train like I’m playing football even though it was never even a remote possibility ever over the last year and a half because I was pretty much set in my decision and very happy. This is by no means me having an itch or anything like that; it was just an opportunity of a lifetime, quite honestly.”

Weddle has remained close with McVay and is a longtime friend of Raheem Morris, who is in his first season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator. When Weddle saw a text from Morris earlier this week, he thought the DC was hitting him up for intel on the Cardinals.

“Then the conversation started to happen and he’s like, ‘You’re not fat and out of shape, are ya?'” Weddle said. “As soon as he said that, I knew what was coming next.”

Weddle, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, last played in the Rams’ 2019 regular-season finale. Monday will mark 750 days since then. He acknowledged that his timing and tackling could be rusty but said he feels “amazing” physically.

“Obviously training for an NFL season is unlike anything else,” he said. “You can’t get that outside by yourself. And I’m not saying I’m on that level, but I have done things both training-wise and playing five-on-five once or twice a week. I love basketball and that change of direction, jumping, start and stop. I came out yesterday and ran and lifted and it was as if I had been here all season. I’m not going to say I’m at that level. That discredits every NFL player that’s spent the time and effort. But if I didn’t feel like I can go out there and be what I’m expected to be, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

Running back Cam Akers was not listed on the Rams’ practice report, indicating he was a full participant. Akers played 13 snaps last week in his first game back from the Achilles tear he suffered over the summer. He gained 13 yards on eight touches against the 49ers.

“I do feel like I’m 100 percent, but me saying that probably don’t make you believe it,” he said. “I’d just rather go play ball, just go show people that you’re 100 percent. Not show myself because I already know. Just go out there and make plays.”

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J.J. Watt returns to practice; status uncertain for Arizona Cardinals’ wild-card game Monday

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt practiced Thursday for the first time since he injured his left shoulder against the Houston Texans on Oct. 24.

He was “very limited,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said, but was able to take part in some drills. Watt was on the field for the open portion of practice and went through drills punching a sled and facing a defensive lineman acting as an offensive lineman.

Kingsbury didn’t have any clarification on whether Watt might be ready to play in his first game in almost 12 weeks on Monday night in the NFC wild-card game against the Los Angeles Rams.

“Like I mentioned earlier, it’s the next step,” Kingsbury said. “We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves for whether he’s going to play or not for a while. It’s great having him back out there.

“He was done with his rehab, done with all he could do in the weight room, so we wanted to get him back out doing some functional football exercises. That was the step today.”

Watt said he dislocated his shoulder “out the back” and injured his rotator cuff, labrum, capsule and infraspinatus, as well as dislocating his bicep tendon.

After having surgery to repair the shoulder on Nov. 3, Watt was given a four-to-six month window for a return. He said he broke his timeline into weeks and asked the question: “How the hell can I get back faster than that to get back out there, guys?”

“And then you just go to work and you have no clue that it’s going to actually work or not,” he said. “You have no clue if you’re gonna make it happen or not, but you just go to work. And if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but I knew that, at that moment, you’re going to do everything you possibly can because those guys in there [would] do everything they possibly could for me.”

Watt returned to the field Thursday after about two and a half months.

His status for Monday night won’t be determined until closer to the game, but he’ll need to be cleared by the Cardinals’ doctors and trainers, Kingsbury said.

Watt has spent the past few weeks ramping up toward a return to the field. He maxed out his recovery and rehab and had started doing on-field work before getting designated to return from the injured reserve on Friday.

“He’s basically done everything humanly possible he could do in the training room, in the weight room,” Kingsbury said.

The next step in Watt’s return was facing offensive linemen off to the side at practice. He went through simulated plays, drives and halves before returning to practice Thursday. His conditioning was never a concern, Watt said, and he started running as soon as the doctors allowed it.

“I’m not going to put myself on the field if it’s going to put my team in a worse situation,” Watt said.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

Watt returned from a torn pec after 10 weeks in 2019, just in time for the Houston Texans‘ playoff opener, after being given a longer prognosis for a return.

Even though Watt is in the 21-day window to return from injured reserve, he’s in the next step of his return, which is to start facing live action.

Watt always thought coming back in time to play this season was a possibility.

“For me, personally, there’s never been a moment that I didn’t consider [a return to be] realistic because if I did then it wouldn’t work,” he said. “I had to truly believe it every second for it to work. I mean, you have to believe in the process and you have to believe you’re going to do something. I mean, it’s the visualization factor or the putting-it-out-in-the-universe, whatever you want to say, but if you don’t believe in yourself, it’s not gonna happen. So, I believed in it from the beginning.”

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San Francisco 49ers expect star LT Trent Williams back vs. Dallas Cowboys

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Barring a setback in the next few days, the San Francisco 49ers are expected to welcome back one of their biggest and most important players in time for Sunday’s NFC wildcard showdown against the Dallas Cowboys.

Left tackle Trent Williams, who has been recovering from a sprained right elbow for the past couple of weeks, returned to practice Thursday. An while he was officially listed as a limited participant, all signs point to him being ready to play in Dallas.

“The elbow is doing good,” Williams said. “It’s made a lot of improvement over the last week or so. I practiced today. I felt pretty good.”

Williams did not practice on Wednesday but coach Kyle Shanahan had remained optimistic this week that the star left tackle would be able to get back to a point he could play against the Cowboys. Williams went through Thursday’s practice with a special tape job on the elbow, something he said he prefers over a bulkier brace.

That Williams returned on Thursday bodes especially well since it’s the 49ers’ most strenuous practice day. It’s also a far cry from last week, when Williams said he knew all along it was unlikely he’d play against the Los Angeles Rams but held out hope all the way up until the hours before the game.

“I knew going last week was a bit of a shot in the dark,” Williams said. “Obviously with the season being where it was, I couldn’t give up on myself early in the week so I just thought I’d give it to the very last second to see if I could make any breakthroughs or get any better to see if I could push through it. I did that and it didn’t work but we kind of knew that though. We knew that one week of rest was probably not enough and I just prayed we could get a second week in and we were able to.”

Indeed, San Francisco’s 27-24 victory against the Rams secured them a playoff spot and bought Williams additional time to heal.

Williams initially injured the elbow on the sixth play of a Jan. 2 win against the Houston Texans. He played through the injury that day until the Niners pulled away late, but knew something was amiss.

“I definitely didn’t think it was a good time for me to miss any time so I just gritted through it and I paid the price later,” Williams said.

Colton McKivitz replaced Williams against the Rams but is likely to return to a backup role this week against the Cowboys. Getting Williams back is particularly important for the Niners given Dallas’ pass-rushing trio of Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons, a group Williams said, “makes that defense go.”

Williams finished the regular season with a pass rush win rate of 92.3%, which was ninth in the NFL, and did not allow a sack, according to ESPN’s tracking of blocking data.

“He’s the best football player I’ve ever played with, so it’s very helpful,” tight end George Kittle said of Williams’ impending return. “Huge Trent Williams fan, love playing with him, love blocking with him, it makes my life a lot easier. He makes everybody’s life a lot easier… Trent, like a little bit hurt is still better than I think almost everybody in the NFL regardless of position. So, having him back has a huge impact for us and will allow us to do a lot more things in the run and pass game.”

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