Monday, August 14, 2017

A Handful Of Rookies Could Shine

Nobody was surprised when Ezekiel Elliott soared in his rookie season. He came into the NFL with supreme talent and joined a prolific offense with one of the most dominant offensive lines in the game. That’s the kind of “perfect storm” of opportunity you dream about in a first-year fantasy player.

Michael Thomas joined a prolific passing attack in New Orleans and had a strong training camp. He acclimated quickly and finished his rookie season among the Top 10 receiving ranks.  

Little was expected from Jordan Howard in his freshman season, until Jeremy Langford went down. Howard rewarded those who snatched him out of free agency with a Top 10 finish.

Though Dak Prescott started the entire season and posted better overall stats than Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Tom Brady, he was never considered a fantasy stud.

It seemed like Tyreek Hill scored every time he touched the ball, but those touches were so rare.

And that’s about it for the 2016 rookie class. Each of the others had minimal impact, as is typically – though not always – the case.

So what can we expect this season?

In my view, 2017 should produce very similar results, thanks to a couple of stellar prospects and a handful of others with the potential to shine should circumstances break their way.

Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the most decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multi-faceted equation.

Does the rookie have a clear path to a starting gig? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he healthy heading into the season, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps due to injury?

With these variables in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2017 and assess its members’ likelihood of soaring during their inaugural seasons.


CREAM OF THE CROP

Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars. It’s simple, really. Jacksonville wants the 2017 4th overall draft pick to perform like the guy who went fourth overall in 2016, minus the off-field issues. Fournette is a walk-in starter on a team squarely focused on running the ball, though he doesn’t have an All Pro-stacked offensive line to open holes like Elliott. Nevertheless, this rookie is special, though his upside is limited by the paucity of talent surrounding him.

O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers. The 6’6” 251-pound rookie should be a red zone beast, and he can regularly exploit mismatches in the middle of the field thanks to the outside speed of both Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. It shouldn’t take Howard long to relegate Cameron Brate to the sidelines, giving Howard a shot at Top 10 production at his position.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers. Unlike Fournette, McCaffrey doesn’t have a clear path to the starting, much less workhorse, role. When healthy, Jonathan Stewart will get his share of the carries, including around the goal line. McCaffrey is a multi-faceted weapon, though, whose value is higher in PPR leagues thanks to his receiving prowess.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings. Cook has already seized the lead role in his backfield, thanks in part to Latavius Murray’s lingering ankle injury. Cook’s receiving skills should help him overcome the run-challenged limitations of Minnesota’s offensive line, which should be noted by PPR leaguers in particular.

Corey Davis, WR, Titans. A bum hammy could cost Davis his entire preseason and the invaluable reps with Marcus Mariota that both players need. With Eric Decker joining the receiving corps, the rookie may be worked into the rotation slowly upon his return. Davis’ physical skills are off the charts, but Tennessee’s run-based offense isn’t the best fit for him.

Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals. Few doubt the rookie is more talented than the two guys currently above him on the depth chart: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Assuming he stays out of trouble (and having seen the horrific video, I personally wish failure upon him), Mixon should earn a starting gig sooner than later. But rather than bringing clarity to Cincinnati’s backfield, Mixon’s addition more likely cements its status as a RB-by-committee model.

LATE-ROUND FLIERS AT BEST

Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints. It’s hard to imagine Kamara getting meaningful touches playing behind both Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. He’s expected to be the third-down receiving back, which has historically offered some value in New Orleans. But even PPR owners will have trouble starting him in any given week.

John Ross, WR, Bengals. Ross is a burner, but that attribute may be squandered by Andy Dalton’s limited arm strength. A shoulder injury has kept him sidelined thus far, which is never a good thing for a rookie receiver. Expecting him to produce with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and last year’s promising rookie, Tyler Boyd, on the roster seems like a stretch.

Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins. He’s going to have to out-perform Rob Kelley to earn a starting gig, and he didn’t do himself any favors in his preseason debut. Most observers believe he will eventually overtake Kelley, but it could take several weeks or more.

Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs. At best, Hunt will split carries with a healthy Spencer Ware. More likely, he will play a secondary role to the starter for most of his rookie season. He does appear to have vaulted above Charcandrick West and newcomer C.J. Spiller, so he’ll be the RB to target should Ware suffer another injury.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans. With only Tom Savage standing between him and a starting job, Watson’s path seems fairly clear. That said, even with his obvious running skills, he’ll be hard-pressed to achieve fantasy relevance in his first year.

Zay Jones, WR, Bills. The upheaval in Buffalo’s receiving corps – Anquan Boldin and Jordan Matthews in, Sammy Watkins out – could give Jones some extra looks in the preseason. But it won’t be enough to promise anything more than weekly boom or bust production.

Evan Engram, TE, Giants. Keep an eye on this rookie, who is more physically similar to Brandon Marshall than New York’s other tight ends. He’s not a great blocker, which will limit his snaps; but he has the potential to be a midseason free-agent pickup.

David Njoku, TE, Browns. On the positive side, Cleveland released Gary Barnidge after drafting Njoku. On the other hand, the rookie has failed to impress in training camp, possibly due to a nagging back injury. Oh yeah, he also plays for the pass-challenged Browns.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers. Samuel is expected to play in the slot, but he may have trouble seeing the field in his rookie year. He is the definition of “late-round flier.”

Jamaal Williams, RB, Packers. He’s highly unlikely to vault above Ty Montgomery on the depth chart, so consider this bruising back to be injury insurance at best.

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears. Who would be surprised if he surpasses Mike Glennon for the starting role? But that won’t make him a fantasy factor. Maybe next year.

Mike Williams, WR, Chargers. If San Diego’s crowded receiving corps wasn’t enough to scare you away, the possibility of season-ending back surgery should. Unless his medical prognosis improves significantly very soon, scratch this rookie off your draft list.

Coming next MondayMy 2017 Sleeper picks.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Old Faces In New Places

Quick: Where will Alshon Jeffery be shagging passes this season? Whose uniform is Jamaal Charles now sporting? Which city’s fans will Jared Cook disappoint this year? Is anyone left on the Jets to catch a pass?

Welcome back, fantasy fools! It’s time to hunker down and get serious about this year’s draft. But first, we need to pause and examine the NFL’s shifted landscape.

As usual, dozens of fantasy-relevant players – more than 55, by my count – were traded or signed free-agent deals with new teams this offseason. But if past is prologue, precious few will improve their fantasy fortunes.

The trend was never more evident than last season, when exactly one player – DeMarco Murray – appreciably boosted his stock after swapping uniforms. Ironically, he was the marquee free-agent bust of the previous year. Mike Wallace and Martellus Bennett also improved their fortunes in 2016, but not enough to crow about.

Will this year’s carpetbagger class fare any better? For a change, I’ll say yes. But my prediction is tempered by the fact that most of those listed in the “Movin’ On Up” category are returning from injury-shortened seasons or, in one notable case, from retirement.

Here’s my quick look at the most significant offseason moves of 2017, categorized by the projected year-over-year impact on each player’s fantasy value.

MOVIN’ ON UP – Look for improved production from these players.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Raiders – It’s hard not to get excited about Oakland’s loaded offense this season. If Lynch can return from the sofa in anything resembling his beastly form, he could lead the league in rushing TDs behind that monster offensive line.

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Redskins – Moving from Cleveland’s moribund offense to the Kirk Cousin-led passing attack in Washington is obviously a major upgrade. Pryor immediately vaults to the top of the Redskins’ overhauled receiving corps, giving him significant fantasy upside. As long as you’re not expecting WR1 production, he shouldn’t disappoint.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Eagles – The former Bear has been a fantasy bust since his stellar 2013 and 2014 seasons, so counting on him to reclaim his mojo in Philly comes with significant risk. It would be hard not to improve on the paltry numbers he posted over the last two injury- and suspension-plagued seasons, but WR2 production in 2017 seems out of reach.

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Ravens – Joe Flacco’s back injury casts a pall over Maclin’s early-season prospects, but the veteran is expected to be Baltimore’s go-to wideout now that Steve Smith has hung up his cleats. Maclin’s last season in KC was a bust, so there’s plenty of room for a rebound provided he gets in sync with his new QB(s).

Eddie Lacy, RB, Seahawks – An ankle injury robbed him of most of the 2016 season before the Packers sent him packing, so simply staying on the field should lead to an uptick. But in addition to overcoming his well-chronicled fitness issues, Lacy will be competing for carries with incumbent Thomas Rawls and the promising C.J. Prosise.

Danny Woodhead, RB, Ravens – PPR leaguers should once again target Woodhead in the middle rounds of their draft. He appears to be fully recovered from last year’s ACL blowout, and his resume is more impressive than any other back’s in Baltimore.

Jay Cutler, QB, Dolphins – You’ll forgive this lifelong Dolphins fan for his disappointment that Miami enticed the wrong former-quarterback-turned-announcer out of retirement. That said, Cutler adds needed stability after Ryan Tannehill’s latest knee injury, and at worst, gives hope to those counting on Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Julius Thomas and even Jay Ajayi. But I sure wouldn’t put my fantasy team in Cutler’s insecure hands.

Adrian Peterson, RB, Saints – I’m not foolish enough to declare the future Hall of Famer done, but unless he slides precipitously, I won’t be drafting him. I remember how ineffective he was even when “healthy” last season, and now his carries will be limited by Mark Ingram, talented rookie Alvin Kamara and Father Time. We’ve heard for years that AP would take on a larger role in the passing game, but even in New Orleans, I’m not buying it.

Eric Decker, WR, Titans – Decker appears to be fully recovered from last season’s hip and shoulder injuries, and he has a fairly clear path to a starting gig. His ceiling is limited, but young-and-improving QB Marcus Mariota has the ability to make Decker fantasy relevant again.

Mike Glennon, QB, Bears – Chicago fans may be ready to turn the page on the underachieving Cutler era, but they can’t be thrilled about their passing game being placed in the hands of the former Buc. Glennon will outperform last year’s three-game production by default, but that does not make him roster-worthy.


LOOK OUT BELOW – These players will be hard-pressed to match last year’s results.

LeGarrette Blount, RB, Eagles – Coming off the best season of his career (highlighted by 18 TD runs), Blount brings some stability to the Philly running game. But look for a major step backwards in fantasy production.

Latavius Murray, RB, Vikings – While he’s recovering from offseason ankle surgery, rookie Dalvin Cook is staking his claim to the lead role in Minnesota’s backfield. Murray’s draft stock dips daily.

Brandin Cooks, WR, Patriots – Though most would concede that Tom Brady is at least marginally superior to Drew Brees, Cooks will have trouble improving on 2016’s 1,173-yard, 8-TD performance in the Patriots’ crowded passing game. Brees was better equipped to take advantage of Cooks’ blazing speed, though Brady may target him more in the red zone.

DeSean Jackson, WR, Buccaneers – Looking for an exciting addition to Jameis Winston’s receiving arsenal? Check out rookie TE O.J. Howard. The 30-year-old Jackson is destined to be a boom-or-bust (mostly bust) fantasy performer in any given week opposite elite wideout Mike Evans.

Pierre Garcon, WR, 49ers – If a receiver leads the 49ers in production, does he make a sound? Methinks not. Especially with Brian Hoyer at the controls.

Kenny Britt, WR, Browns – How good could Britt be if he was paired with a good QB? We certainly won’t find out this season.

Steven Hauschka, K, Bills – The once-steady kicker loses his fantasy cred in frigid Buffalo.


CALL IT A WASH – For better or worse – mostly worse – these players should post comparable results to last season.

Brian Hoyer, QB, 49ers – Similar to Glennon above, Hoyer’s starting status cannot be comforting to diehard 49ers fans. Given the limited firepower of his receiving corps, this passing game will be hard to watch.

Josh McCown, QB, Jets – The well-traveled passer still hasn’t won the starting job over fairly mediocre competition. And when Robby Anderson is projected to be the top target, how excited can you get about any QB?

Jamaal Charles, RB, Broncos – It’s never a good sign when your projections are preceded by the phrase “if he makes the team.” Charles is coming off back-to-back seasons lost to knee injuries, and he clearly isn’t the every-down workhorse he once was.

Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots – Conventional wisdom has pegged Gillislee as “the new LeGarrette Blount” in New England. But you and I know how frustrating it can be to own Patriots backs, even when they’re ostensibly labeled “starter.” Draft him if you enjoy weekly headaches. Ditto for former Bengal Rex Burkhead.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Giants – Despite seeing the field in all but one game, Marshall couldn’t crack the Top 50 WR ranks in 2016. Playing opposite Odell Beckham, Jr., and with Eli Manning at the controls, a rebound year is possible. But how big a jump the 12th-year receiver can make is another story. He’s a WR3 at best.

Robert Woods, WR, Rams – Irrelevant as a second or third option in Buffalo, Woods’ value should soar as Jared Goff’s top receiver. But it won’t.

Martellus Bennett, TE, Packers – Marty B managed to finish the 2016 season among the Top 10 ranks, thanks in large part to Rob Gronkowski’s injuries. He will be A-Rod’s most-targeted TE in Green Bay, which should be enough to replicate those results. But don’t count on consistent highlights from the well-traveled player.

Julius Thomas, TE, Dolphins – The oft-injured tight end was a bust in Jacksonville, just as oft-concussed free agent Jordan Cameron disappointed in Miami. Neither his nor his team’s recent history offers reason for optimism.

Dwayne Allen, TE, Patriots – New England has a habit of making backup TEs fantasy-relevant, but the perennially underachieving Allen should only be viewed as injury insurance for Gronk.

Jared Cook, TE, Raiders – Remember all those fantasy “gurus” who said Cook would excel in Green Bay last year? Yeah, I wasn’t buying the hype then either.

Blair Walsh, K, Seahawks – He’s deserving of an upgrade now that he has escaped Minnesota’s low-octane offense, but the difference will be negligible.


OFF THE RADAR – We expect to refer to these players strictly in the past tense from now on.

QBs: Tony Romo (CBS), Brock Osweiler (Browns)

RBs: Tim Hightower (49ers), C.J. Spiller (Chiefs), Justin Forsett (Ret.)

WRs: Torrey Smith (Eagles), Kendall Wright (Bears), Ted Ginn (Saints), Victor Cruz (Bears), Markus Wheaton (Bears), Michael Floyd (Vikings), Anquan Boldin (Bills)

TEs: Gary Barnidge (F/A), Mychal Rivera (Jaguars)


Coming next Monday: A look at the 2017 Rookie Class.

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