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Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football draft sleepers, busts, breakouts for 2021​


As we enter into the heart of fantasy football draft season, the ESPN Fantasy Football experts are here to bring you their latest sleepers, busts and breakout players for the 2021 campaign, as defined here:

  • Sleeper: A player who is being overlooked and will outperform their average draft position (ADP) in 2021.
  • Bust: A player who is highly regarded and will underperform their ADP in 2021.
  • Breakout: A player (rookies included) who will rise up with career-best numbers in 2021 and make a huge impact.
Our panel is composed of the following ESPN Fantasy writers and editors: Stephania Bell, Matthew Berry, Matt Bowen, Tom Carpenter, Mike Clay, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Daniel Dopp, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, Jim McCormick, Field Yates, Kyle Soppe and Joe Kaiser.

Each analyst named a sleeper and a bust for each of the major offensive positions, as well as one breakout candidate. You can find their picks below, and their analysis and insight on a selection of players they felt most passionate about in each category.

Quarterback sleepers​

Stephania Bell: Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts
Matthew Berry: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington Football Team
Matt Bowen: Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Tom Carpenter: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington Football Team
Mike Clay: Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: "Yes, it's typically a slow, lengthy recovery from a knee construction, and the wise approach is to draft the player in Year 2 removed from it, but in Burrow's case, that long-standing injury advice actually serves to seriously deflate his draft value. He's a low-to-mid-range drafted QB2 with top-10 skills, having been the No. 1 pick of the 2020 NFL draft and fantasy's QB14 in his nine completely healthy games as a rookie. Burrow has a strong set of receivers (Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and tight end Drew Sample) and he plays for a team with a shaky defense that should force him into a high volume of throws."
Daniel Dopp: Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Eric Karabell: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
Keith Lipscomb: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Jim McCormick: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Field Yates: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Soppe: Daniel Jones, New York Giants
Joe Kaiser: Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

Quarterback busts​

Stephania Bell: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Matthew Berry: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: "It's not that Ryan will be a bad fantasy QB this year, it's that just being solid isn't enough. Eight of the top 10 QB's last year (and 9-of-10 in 2019) had at least 200 yards rushing. You need to run these days to be an elite fantasy QB and Ryan doesn't run -- he's never had a year with 150-plus rushing yards -- which means he needs to be unreal in the passing game to deliver top-10 or even top-12 production. And that's gonna be tough for him this year with no Julio Jones. Last year, in the nine games where Jones didn't play or left early, Ryan averaged 14.2 fantasy points, 256 passing yards and just over 1 TD pass per game. Yeesh! You can throw Kyle Pitts at me all you want but I don't care how talented he is, there's no rookie tight end that will fully make up for Julio Jones in their first year. Add in the fact that Ryan will be learning a new system with new head coach Arthur Smith and Ryan is best left to be a bye week fill-in in the right matchup, rather than someone you use as a fantasy starter this year."
Matt Bowen: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Tom Carpenter: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Mike Clay: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Running back sleepers​

Stephania Bell: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
Matthew Berry: Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins
Matt Bowen: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers: "With the contact balance and decisive running style to produce in Kyle Shanahan's offense, Sermon is an easy sleeper pick at his current ADP of RB41. Since 2017, the 49ers rank No.4 in RB fantasy points per game (27.9), while also averaging a league-high 2.82 yards per carry before first contact. Yes, Sermon joins a crowded running back room in San Francisco. However, I believe the rookie has the pro-ready traits to ascend the depth chart quickly as a volume ball carrier who can also impact the passing game in PPR formats on swings, screens and unders."
Tom Carpenter: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Mike Clay: Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Daniel Dopp: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Eric Karabell: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Keith Lipscomb: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
Jim McCormick: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
Field Yates: Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
Kyle Soppe: Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
Joe Kaiser: Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

Running back busts​

Stephania Bell: D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions: "Just so we're clear, this is not an indictment of Swift but rather of the world in which he exists. Swift has proven his versatility as a dual-threat running back, the type who can speed past defenders in space and is equally nimble as a pass-catcher. So why the knock? Because his fantasy value is undercut by a system that is likely to deploy two backs on the regular, now that Jamaal Williams is on board. Williams has averaged just over 10 touches per game in his career and if he were to even just maintain that pace, Swift would need those touches and then some to provide a return on investment relative to his current ADP. Short-yardage and goal-line situations may even veer towards Williams, rendering Swift's value more reliant on bigger playmaking each time he touches the ball, all in an offense that is questionable at best."
Matthew Berry: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Matt Bowen: Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Carpenter: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Mike Clay: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tristan H. Cockcroft: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Daniel Dopp: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Eric Karabell: Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Keith Lipscomb: Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Jim McCormick: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Field Yates: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Kyle Soppe: D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Joe Kaiser: Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Daniel Dopp: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
Eric Karabell: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Keith Lipscomb: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Jim McCormick: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Field Yates: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Soppe: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Joe Kaiser: Daniel Jones, New York Giants

Wide receiver sleepers​

Stephania Bell: Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Matthew Berry: Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears
Matt Bowen: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
Tom Carpenter: Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts
Mike Clay: Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos: "Jeudy is entering 2021 off an up-and-down rookie campaign in which he racked up 112 targets (21st among WRs), but struggled with efficiency (eight drops, 46% catch rate) and fantasy production (two top-30 weeks). Jeudy's role as a vertical threat (his 14.5 aDOT ranked eighth) and shaky QB play (25% off-target rate ranked eighth) contributed to the underwhelming production, but the 2020 15th-overall pick has the raw talent for a second-year leap. It's also possible he gets better quarterback play if either Drew Lock progresses or newcomer Teddy Bridgewater (who supported three top-25 fantasy WRs in 2020) steps in."
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Daniel Dopp: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions
Eric Karabell: CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
Keith Lipscomb: Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals
Jim McCormick: Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders
Field Yates: Amari Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Kyle Soppe: Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
Joe Kaiser: Curtis Samuel, Washington Football Team

Wide receiver busts​

Stephania Bell: Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans
Matthew Berry: William Fuller V Miami Dolphins
Matt Bowen: Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
Tom Carpenter: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Mike Clay: DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans
Daniel Dopp: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Eric Karabell: Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns: "Fantasy managers just can't help themselves when it comes to Beckham. Yes, once upon a time he was awesome. Electric! A future Hall of Famer! It's been a while since Beckham performed anywhere near a WR2 level. He wasn't close to that last season before he tore his ACL, with a meager yards-per-target, and it wasn't Baker Mayfield's fault. Mayfield played better, in a run-first offense, after Beckham got hurt. Look, everyone knows the famous name and the one-handed catches from his Giants days. Those days are long gone. Expect Beckham and the Browns to proclaim "full knee health" all summer, spiking his ADP to prior levels, but don't let that convince you big numbers are coming. They weren't pre-injury and they aren't now."
Keith Lipscomb: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Jim McCormick: William Fuller V, Miami Dolphins
Field Yates: Sterling Shepard, New York Giants
Kyle Soppe: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Joe Kaiser: Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

Tight end sleepers​

Stephania Bell: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Matthew Berry: Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
Matt Bowen: Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots
Tom Carpenter: Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Mike Clay: Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Daniel Dopp: Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks
Eric Karabell: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Keith Lipscomb: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Jim McCormick: Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Field Yates: Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks: "The Seahawks have often leaned on multiple tight ends, which could again be the case this season. That said, Everett is a unique player athletically, opening up the possibility of a breakout campaign with Seattle. A talented player after the catch who is effective in space -- he averaged over 15 yards per catch as a rookie -- he has already caught the attention of his new squad following a solid offseason and should routinely see favorable matchups. If he can quickly immerse himself in Seattle's red-zone offense, a 6-TD season isn't out of reach."
Kyle Soppe: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Joe Kaiser: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams

Tight end busts​

Stephania Bell: Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Matthew Berry: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Matt Bowen: Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Tom Carpenter: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Mike Clay: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
Daniel Dopp: Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams
Eric Karabell: Evan Engram, New York Giants
Keith Lipscomb: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Jim McCormick: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
Field Yates: Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers
Kyle Soppe: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers: "I'm not saying Kittle sinks your roster, I just don't think he's the right choice to make at the end of the third round. Strip away his name and evaluate the profile, shall we? He missed half of last season and plays for a team with a question mark at quarterback for a coach that has the 49ers ranked sixth in rush rate during his four years in charge. Oh, and that devotion to the run? It's not going anywhere as they spent draft capital on both offensive line depth and another explosive back. My positional ranking of Kittle matches his ADP, but I'm slotting him atop Tier 2 instead of as a part of Tier 1 -- and that means not looking his way until Round 5."
Joe Kaiser: Evan Engram, New York Giants

2021 breakout player​

Stephania Bell: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
Matthew Berry: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
Matt Bowen: J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
Tom Carpenter: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Mike Clay: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Tristan H. Cockcroft: T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions
Daniel Dopp: DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers: "In 2020, Moore had 66 catches, 1,193 yards and 4 TDs. Despite pedestrian QB play from Teddy Bridgewater (only 16 passing TDs on the season), Moore finished WR9 in receiving yards and WR12 in air yards per target. The return of Christian McCaffrey will only help this offense and while Sam Darnold's time with the Jets didn't instill a lot of confidence, don't sleep on his ability to thrive after leaving Adam Gase's offense. I sat in on too many First Draft podcast conversations with Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay to write Darnold off. Sam Darnold is talented. If Moore can limit his drops and up his TD production (both of which are absolutely achievable with his skill set), I see him finishing closer to a top 12-15 WR, rather than the WR25 he finished as last year."
Eric Karabell: D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Keith Lipscomb: J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
Jim McCormick: T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions
Field Yates: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Kyle Soppe: DJ Chark Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Joe Kaiser: Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers



Mar 6, 2018

Is Kyle Pitts the exception to the 'Don't draft rookie TEs' rule?​


On one hand, we've got a once-in-a-generation tight end prospect in Kyle Pitts.

Pitts managed an extraordinary 1,492 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in his 32 games at the University of Florida, the former setting a school record for a tight end. He became the first tight end in 43 years to finish in the top 10 of the Heisman voting. Pitts became the highest-drafted tight end in the common draft era (1967 forward), when the Atlanta Falcons selected him fourth overall in the NFL draft, so it's no surprise that there is plenty of excitement surrounding him in fantasy leagues.

On the other hand, we've got that age-old theory that tight ends rarely meet or exceed their rookie-year expectations. It has long been said that the position has among the steepest learning curves at the NFL level, so rookie tight ends should be avoided in fantasy.

So which is it? Is Pitts that star-caliber, buck-the-trend performer fantasy managers need to aggressively draft, or is he just the next in a long line of soon-to-disappoint rookies? And just to be clear with the latter possibility, a player can disappoint as an NFL freshman, only to go on to do amazing things at the game's highest competitive level -- see Kellen Winslow Sr., who played sparingly during his rookie 1979 campaign but caught at least 88 passes in three of his next four seasons (not to mention paced for 96 in the strike-shortened 1982) en route to a Hall of Fame career.

Pitts' star-caliber skills are indisputable. A 6-foot-6, 240-pound prospect with an 83 3/8-inch wingspan -- the latter longer than that of any other receiver in the past 20 years per Pro Football Focus' records -- he has the frame of an elite, goal-line-monster tight end, yet with the speed of an elite wide receiver (4.44 40 time). There's a reason that, in advance of the draft, Mel Kiper Jr. called Pitts the best tight end prospect he's scouted, and comparisons to Calvin Johnson, who has two of the 20 best single-season PPR fantasy point totals among wide receivers in history and three 300-point campaigns on his résumé, were bandied about frequently.

That the Falcons invested the No. 4 overall pick on Pitts tells you plenty about their high regard for him, and all indications were that he was heavily involved in the passing game during the team's June minicamp. Also, the early-June trade of Julio Jones cleared 69 targets off the team's ledger, and accounting for the adds and drops in the team's receiving roster during the offseason, they've got 64 total vacated targets to be absorbed by Pitts and any of the team's other receiving options. Additionally, fellow tight end Hayden Hurst, now presumably second on their positional depth chart, had 90 targets in 2020 and might cede a good share of those to Pitts.

Consider the makeup of the team too: The Falcons totaled 610 targets last season and have ranged between 599 and 651 the past three seasons, averaging 591.3 in the past decade. They're a pass-first team, with good depth in the receiving game, including budding superstar wide receiver Calvin Ridley, a quality pass-catching running back in Mike Davis and a solid No. 2 wideout in Russell Gage. Pitts should provide a good complement to the team's other options, and there's little doubt that the receiving volume will be there for him to make a meaningful impact right away.

Still, history is strongly stacked against Pitts breaking any rookie records. Only five times in NFL history has a rookie tight end amassed 160 PPR fantasy points or more: Mike Ditka (233.6, 1961), Keith Jackson (200.9, 1988), Charle Young (184.8, 1973), Evan Engram (173.6, 2017) and Jeremy Shockey (171.4, 2002). That's significant, considering six tight ends managed at least 170 such points in 2020, though it's true that the bar for "elite" status at the position has risen in recent years. Taking this from a positional-finish approach, only 11 times has a rookie tight end finished among the top five at his position in PPR fantasy scoring, and of those 11, only three have occurred in the past 30 seasons: Engram finished fifth in 2017, Shockey third in 2002 and Cameron Cleeland third in 1998 (158.4 points).

Even approaching this from a usage, rather than fantasy production, standpoint, casts a gloomy picture for rookie tight ends. With 496 routes run, Engram is the only rookie tight end in the 14 seasons for which we have routes data to run at least 400, a threshold reached by 65 receivers overall and 11 tight ends last season alone. Shockey (122 targets), Engram (11), Cleeland (88) and Jermaine Gresham (82) are the only rookie tight ends in the 29 seasons for which we have target data to see at least 80, a threshold again reached by 65 receivers overall and 12 tight ends in 2020.

In those same 29 seasons for which we have target data, only Shockey (23.1% target share), Engram (18.7%), John Carlson (17.0%, 2008), Cleeland (17.0%), Zach Miller (15.5%, 2007), Tony Moeaki (15.2%, 2010) and Timothy Wright (15.2%, 2013) managed at least a 15% target share, which in a 600-target system means 90 targets.

Even if we take it from a caliber-of-prospect standpoint, the 15 tight ends who were selected among the first 10 picks of the NFL draft during the common draft era averaged only 64.8 PPR fantasy points, and prorating their overall production to a 16-game season, their number would still have been only 80.2. Among players widely regarded to be the best tight end prospects at the time of their draft selections, Kellen Winslow Jr. scored only 10.0 points in two games in 2004 (sixth overall selection), Vernon Davis totaled 63.0 in 10 games in 2006 (sixth overall), Eric Ebron managed 55.8 points in 13 games in 2014 (10th overall) and T.J. Hockenson tallied 80.7 in 12 games in 2019 (eighth overall). The argument that Pitts' skills exceed that of all of these prospects is valid, but the history of top-shelf tight end prospects supports the notion that there is, indeed, a steep positional learning curve to bear in mind.

Hurst's own usage in his first year in Atlanta provides encouraging projection points: He ran 506 routes, saw 90 targets and played 69% (743 of 1,077) of the Falcons' offensive snaps -- ranking third, tied for eighth and 12th, respectively, among tight ends. The Falcons' two other tight ends, Luke Stocker and Jaeden Graham, totaled 157 routes run, 16 targets and played 46% and 10% of the team's offensive snaps. It's conceivable that Pitts could slide directly into Hurst's role and Hurst into the Stocker/Graham supporting spot, though the previously mentioned vacated targets mean that a larger number could also come the tight end's way.

Hurst's presence, though, is an obstacle to Pitts' immediate greatness. The Falcons, under new coach Arthur Smith, the Tennessee Titans' former offensive coordinator, are sure to use two-tight end sets, something he did 513 times in 2020, second most in the league. Pitts and Hurst are considerably more talented tight ends than Smith's 2020 combination of Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser, but the team also brought in blocking specialist Lee Smith, who could cut slightly into either Pitts' or Hurst's snaps when the play dictates it. So long as Hurst remains on the roster, he's going to siphon off some of Pitts' targets, and that might be enough to rein the rookie in from challenging for the position's top spots in fantasy.

The upshot of all this is Pitts can and probably should be drafted as aggressively as any tight end in fantasy football history. Managers have actually been historically conservative drafting freshmen tight ends, with only Shockey (64th overall on average) and Bubba Franks (90th, 2000) going among the top 100 selections overall during the 20 seasons for which we have ESPN average draft position available (note that 2004, Winslow Jr.'s rookie year, is the one we don't have). Considering the high probability of Pitts matching Shockey's usage, matching that No. 64 overall ADP is entirely reasonable, but that's not always the asking price across all leagues.

For example, in NFFC (National Fantasy Football Championship) drafts since the 2021 NFL draft, Pitts' ADP is 55th overall, with a high pick of 17th overall. There's a point at which selecting him eliminates any chance of him being profitable. Considering all of the above factors, a top-50 overall pick is probably that threshold.

Pitts is a player I'd love to build around in a dynasty or keeper league -- but in a redraft league, early indications are that he'll be too pricey for my tastes.



Mar 6, 2018

Preseason Shadow Report: fantasy football wide receiver upgrades and downgrades​


Football analysis has reached a new era in which player participation data has allowed us to analyze, predict and project wide receiver/cornerback matchups.

Though this data becomes exceptionally useful during the regular season, a thorough examination of each team's depth chart can allow us to determine potential upgrades and downgrades for each wide receiver before the season even begins. "Strength of schedule" is one of many variables that allow us to generate rankings, projections and draft-day decisions, and WR/CB matchup data allows us to take that analysis to the next level.

For this exercise, I've ranked each cornerback unit by focusing primarily on each team's top three corners (offenses had three wide receivers on the field for 73% of pass plays last season), while also considering the health, talent and pedigree of each team's additional depth at the position. I also examined team's "shadowing" tendencies to determine how each unit figures to fare against top-end No. 1 targets, as well as secondary and slot receivers.

Once I had each cornerback unit ranked and analyzed, I took a look at each offense's 2021 schedule and determined which wide receivers will face the easiest and toughest cornerback slates this season.

Note that since many of your leagues won't include Week 18 in the fantasy schedule, only Weeks 1-to-17 are included in this analysis. Weeks 15-17 are given some extra attention, as that will be the fantasy playoffs for many of you.

It's important not to overreact to any one variable when it comes to player evaluation, but this analysis should help you make better decisions (or at least break some ties) on draft day.

Check back throughout the season for the weekly WR/CB Matchup chart and analysis.

Cornerback rankings​

Where else to start but with a quick look at what our favorite fantasy wide receivers will be dealing with in coverage this season? Here is my ranking of each of the league's 32 cornerback units:

Team Cornerback Group Rankings For 2021​

1RavensMarlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Anthony Averett
2BroncosKyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Michael Ojemudia
3DolphinsByron Jones, Xavien Howard, Justin Coleman, Noah Igbinoghene, Jason McCourty
4RamsJalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, David Long, Robert Rochell, Donte Deayon
5PatriotsStephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams
6BrownsDenzel Ward, Troy Hill, Greg Newsome II, Greedy Williams, M.J. Stewart
7WFTWilliam Jackson, Kendall Fuller, Jimmy Moreland, Benjamin St-Juste, Danny Johnson
8GiantsJames Bradberry, Adoree' Jackson, Darnay Holmes, Aaron Robinson, Isaac Yiadom
9ColtsKenny Moore II, Xavier Rhodes, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, T.J. Carrie
10BillsTre'Davious White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Dane Jackson, Rachad Wildgoose
11PackersJaire Alexander, Kevin King, Chandon Sullivan, Eric Stokes, Josh Jackson
12BuccaneersCarlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Ross Cockrell, Chris Wilcox
13VikingsPatrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney
14JaguarsShaquill Griffin, CJ Henderson, Tre Herndon, Tyson Campbell, Sidney Jones
15PanthersDonte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, A.J. Bouye, Myles Hartsfield, Troy Pride Jr.
16RaidersCasey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, Rasul Douglas, Damon Arnette, Nevin Lawson
1749ersJason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K'Waun Williams, Ambry Thomas, Dontae Johnson
18TitansJanoris Jenkins, Caleb Farley, Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden, Breon Borders
19BengalsChidobe Awuzie, Trae Waynes, Mike Hilton, Darius Phillips, Eli Apple
20TexansBradley Roby, Terrance Mitchell, Desmond King, Eric Murray, Vernon Hargreaves
21ChiefsCharvarius Ward, L'Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton, Mike Hughes, DeAndre Baker
22ChargersChris Harris Jr., Michael Davis, Asante Samuel Jr., Tevaughn Campbell, Brandon Facyson
23CardinalsMalcolm Butler, Byron Murphy, Darqueze Dennard, Robert Alford, Marco Wilson
24SaintsMarshon Lattimore, Patrick Robinson, CJ Gardner-Johnson, Paulson Adebo, Ken Crawley
25SteelersJoe Haden, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne, James Pierre, Arthur Maulet
26FalconsA.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, Fabian Moreau, Darren Hall
27EaglesDarius Slay, Avonte Maddox, Josiah Scott, Zech McPhearson, Michael Jacquet
28LionsJeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Quinton Dunbar, Corn Elder, Ifeatu Melifonwu
29CowboysTrevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright
30BearsJaylon Johnson, Desmond Trufant, Duke Shelley, Kindle Vildor, Thomas Graham Jr.
31SeahawksD.J. Reed, Ahkello Witherspoon, Marquise Blair, Tre Flowers, Tre Brown
32JetsBlessuan Austin, Bryce Hall, Javelin Guidry, Lamar Jackson, Michael Carter II

Shadow Report​

The next step is to take a look at the cornerbacks who we often see shadowing opposing No. 1 wide receivers. I broke them down into two categories: cornerbacks who shadow most weeks and ones who occasionally are asked to travel, especially when the opposing team has a clear standout No. 1 receiver. Generally, these corners will create a tough matchup/downgrade. This group will be referenced throughout the article.

Often shadow
Tre'Davious White, Bills
Jalen Ramsey, Rams
Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, Patriots
Marshon Lattimore, Saints
James Bradberry, Giants
Darius Slay, Eagles
Carlton Davis, Buccaneers

Sometimes shadow
A.J. Bouye, Jaycee Horn and/or Donte Jackson, Panthers
Bradley Roby, Texans
Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, Dolphins
William Jackson, Washington
Malcolm Butler, Cardinals

Rarely shadow
A.J. Terrell, Falcons
Trevon Diggs, Cowboys
Jaire Alexander, Packers
Chris Harris Jr., Chargers
Casey Hayward, Raiders
Patrick Peterson, Vikings


49ers' Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel

The 49ers were overwhelmed by injuries last season, but the team is now healthy and the wide receiver room is ticketed for the easiest projected schedule as far as cornerback matchups go in 2021. That includes the second-easiest schedule for No. 1 wide receivers and the seventh-easiest against the slot. Aiyuk (76% perimeter) and Samuel (62%) primarily aligned on the outside last season and will thus generally see the opposing team's top corners often, but there simply aren't many intimidating corners on the 2021 slate. Of their 16 games (again, ignoring Week 18), 11 are against CB units graded as below average and the Rams are the only top-8 unit on the schedule. Aiyuk and Samuel are both breakout candidates and this certainly helps their case as strong mid-round picks.

Washington's Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel

Washington added a lot of help for McLaurin this offseason and the overhauled WR unit is sure to benefit from a CB schedule that checks in as second-easiest in the league for the season and during the playoffs. McLaurin is ticketed for 10 potential shadow situations (tied for seventh most), but the competition isn't intimidating on the whole. Samuel - not to mention rookie Dyami Brown - figure to bounce around the formation and will certainly benefit from facing nine CB units ranked in the Bottom 11 of the league and only one ranked better than eighth (Denver). Washington's slate looks very pretty down the stretch, as Seattle, Dallas (x2) and Philadelphia (x2) make up five of its final seven games.

Vikings' Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson

Thielen and Jefferson make the upgrade list for the second consecutive season. Considering both were top-10 fantasy WRs in 2020, I'd say the "light" schedule paid dividends. Minnesota will face the easiest schedule for a No. 1 wide receiver, which is a bit tricky to decipher here since both Jefferson (69% perimeter) and Thielen (74%) primarily aligned outside last season and see a hefty/similar target share. There are only four potential shadow situations on the slate, so both should benefit fairly evenly from the advantageous schedule. If there's a negative here, the Vikings' overall schedule is looking pretty tough down the stretch, as they'll face the Steelers, Bears, Rams, Packers and Bears, respectively, during Weeks 14 to 18.

Giants' Kenny Golladay, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Kadarius Toney

The Giants' overhauled WR room is set to face the fourth-easiest CB schedule in 2021. This slate is a bit unique in that New York will face an easy overall schedule and the second-easiest against the slot, but also the 12th toughest for a No. 1 WR (Golladay). This means that the likes of Slayton, Shepard and Toney stand to benefit the most during the regular season. Golladay, meanwhile, could see shadow coverage in 11 games, including potential showdowns with Darius Slay (x2), William Jackson (x2), Marshon Lattimore, Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard, and Carlton Davis. There is good news for Golladay: New York is ticketed for the easiest overall schedule during the playoffs, including the sixth easiest for No. 1 WRs and the fourth easiest against the slot. The Giants will face the Cowboys, Eagles and Bears during the stretch.

Rams' Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp

The Rams are projected to face the third-easiest schedule for a No. 1 WR. Sean McVay moves his receivers around quite a bit, but since Woods (54% perimeter last season) aligns outside more often than Kupp (40%), he stands to benefit more often. The Rams have the seventh-easiest overall slate, but the 13th-toughest against the slot. That all being said, we can feel slightly better about these two, especially Woods, but shouldn't make any drastic adjustments.

Cardinals' DeAndre Hopkins

The Cardinals are tied with the Bengals for the fourth-easiest schedule for a No. 1 wide receiver. Since we're not yet sure if Tee Higgins or Ja'Marr Chase will separate as Cincinnati's clear No. 1 (more on them later), we'll instead focus on Arizona's clear No. 1 WR here. Hopkins' light slate includes only six potential shadow situations, two of which will be Jalen Ramsey. Arizona also has a beneficial second-half slate for wideouts, with Hopkins primed to benefit from matchups with Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas after Week 10.

Buccaneers' Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown ... and Mike Evans in the playoffs

Godwin is the headliner here as Tampa Bay is set up with the easiest schedule for a slot WR in 2021. Godwin aligned inside 67% of the time last season and that's unlikely to change much with Evans and Brown working the perimeter again this season. New England (Jonathan Jones) and Indianapolis (Kenny Moore) are Godwin's only intimidating matchups and he'll face several teams with major concerns at slot corner, including the Eagles, Bears and Jets. Interestingly, the Buccaneers also face the fifth-hardest schedule for a No. 1 WR, which is bad news for Evans, who could face shadow coverage in upward of 13 games (second most). The saving grace for Evans is a much easier projected playoff schedule, as Tampa Bay has a top-5 slate overall, for No. 1 WRs and for slot WRs thanks to matchups with the Saints, Panthers and Jets.


Jets' Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims and Keelan Cole

The Jets' perimeter receivers led this section one year ago and those who took a flier on Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims know the result: one combined top-30 fantasy week. New York drastically improved its WR depth chart during the offseason, but the bad news is that the upgraded unit will face the hardest projected schedule in 2021. That includes the toughest slate for a No. 1 perimeter WR (presumably Davis) and the third-toughest schedule against the slot (Crowder). Davis is set to face 11 potential shadow situations, including the six divisional showdowns with Stephon Gilmore, Xavien Howard and Tre'Davious White. The good news is that none of the Jets' wideouts are overly pricey on draft day, but you may need to pick your spots when plugging them into your lineup.

Raiders' Henry Ruggs III, John Brown and Hunter Renfrow/Willie Snead

The Raiders' WR room finished 27th in fantasy points last season, so it doesn't bode well that it is set to face the third-hardest schedule in 2021. That includes the fourth-hardest schedule for a No. 1 WR (this could be Ruggs or Brown). Renfrow makes this list for the second consecutive season, as Las Vegas is scheduled to face the toughest schedule for a slot receiver. The Raiders entered 2020 with the third-toughest projected slate against the slot and Renfrow ended up 59th in fantasy points while managing only two top-30 weeks. Renfrow will need to fend off newcomer Willie Snead for primary slot duties in 2021, but he's obviously shaky regardless. The Raiders also face the toughest overall schedule and No. 1 WR slate during the playoffs, as well as the second-hardest against the slot. Las Vegas' wide receivers are crazy cheap in drafts, but a path to consistent fantasy value may prove elusive.

Chargers' Keenan Allen and Mike Williams

Chargers wide receivers are projected for the second-toughest schedule this season after entering 2020 with the third-easiest projected slate. Los Angeles' tough schedule includes the third-hardest for a No. 1 WR and the hardest slate against the slot. This bodes very poorly for Allen, who aligned inside 53% of the time in 2020. It's also bad new for Williams since he'll play the de facto "No. 1 perimeter WR" role when Allen is in the slot and thus draw the opposing team's top corner quite often. Allen can still produce WR1 numbers thanks to talent, volume and a good QB situation, but the tough slate figures to limit Williams to another underwhelming fantasy showing.

Texans' Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb

Cobb makes the downgrade list for the second consecutive season. The veteran wideout was projected for the hardest schedule for a slot WR in 2020 and ended the season with two top-35 fantasy weeks, none of which were better than 18th. In 2021, he's ticketed for the third-hardest (overall and during the playoffs). Houston will also face the third-hardest overall schedule for a WR, though "only" the 10th-toughest for No. 1 WRs, with Cooks projected for six possible shadow situations. Cooks doesn't need to be downgraded more than slightly, but Cobb's outlook is obviously much worse.

Cowboys' Amari Cooper

I'm on record that the Dallas offense appears to be "too good to fail", but perhaps we should be lowering expectations for Cooper and boosting them for his teammates. Dallas is set to face the second-hardest schedule for a No. 1 WR, which includes 12 potential shadow situations (tied for third most). Cooper has six very tough matchups on the slate (James Bradberry x2, Washington x2, Stephon Gilmore and Denver), as well as additional matchups against Carlton Davis, Darius Slay, Patrick Peterson and Marshon Lattimore. The schedule isn't any easier during the playoffs (potential matchups with Bradberry, Washington and Arizona). Though Dallas' overall schedule is sixth hardest, it's mid-pack against the slot. This is good news for CeeDee Lamb (93% slot in 2020). The 2020 first-round pick already carries high expectations with his third-round ADP, but he has a legitimate shot to pay it off.

Browns' Jarvis Landry

Cleveland's opposing cornerback schedule checks in around mid pack, but what stands out is the third-hardest slate against the slot. Landry aligned inside 57% of the time last season, which is a number that could be even higher with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. on the field in 2021. Landry will need to deal with tough showdowns with Chris Harris Jr., Bryce Callahan, Jonathan Jones, Marlon Humphrey (x2), Desmond King and Mike Hilton. This isn't ideal after Landry was limited to 32 targets in six full games with Beckham (5.3 per game) and was WR40 in fantasy last season.

Packers, Bengals and Eagles' wide receivers (Playoffs only)

Green Bay, Cincinnati and Philadelphia each check in with an easier-than-average CB schedule for the 2021 season, but all three have a much tougher outlook come playoff time. The Packers have the second-hardest slate during the three-week window, including the second-hardest for a No. 1 WR (Davante Adams) and third-hardest against the slot (Allen Lazard). The Eagles have the third-hardest playoff schedule, including the hardest for a No. 1 WR (DeVonta Smith). The Bengals' playoff slate is fourth-hardest overall and for a No. 1 WR (likely Ja'Marr Chase by that point) and fourth toughest against the slot (Tyler Boyd).

Adams is, of course, the biggest name here and his playoff schedule will include Baltimore, Cleveland and Minnesota. Assuming Aaron Rodgers plays, we don't need to overreact to this, but it's something to keep in mind. Note that Adams had the second-easiest projected schedule for a No. 1 WR last season and went on to score 29 more fantasy points than any other wideout despite missing two and a half games.

Full Season Strength Of Schedule Leaders and Losers​

Easiest overall CB schedule
1. 49ers
2. Football Team
2. Vikings

Toughest overall CB schedule
1. Jets
2. Chargers
3. Raiders
3. Texans

Easiest schedule for No. 1 wide receivers
1. Vikings
2. 49ers
2. Rams

Toughest schedule for No. 1 wide receivers
1. Jets
2. Cowboys
3. Chargers

Easiest schedule for slot receivers
1. Buccaneers
2. Giants

Toughest schedule for slot receivers
1. Raiders
2. Chargers

Most potential shadow matchups
1. Panthers - 15
2. Buccaneers - 13
3. Saints - 12
3. Falcons - 12
3. Cowboys - 12

Fewest potential shadow matchups
1. Bengals - 1
2. Steelers - 2
3. Ravens - 3

Weeks 15-17 (Playoffs) Strength Of Schedule Leaders and Losers​

Easiest overall CB schedule
1. Giants
2. Football Team
3. Lions

Toughest overall CB schedule
1. Raiders
2. Packers
3. Eagles

Easiest schedule for No. 1 wide receivers
1. Lions<

Toughest schedule for No. 1 wide receivers
1. Eagles
2. Packers
2. Raiders



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy Football: top 10 veteran wide receivers on new teams in 2021​


With a lot of veteran wide receiver changing teams this offseason, let's look at the 2021 fantasy expectations for Julio Jones, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller and more in their new landing spots.

Using player traits, offensive scheme fit and key numbers, along with Mike Clay's 2021 projections, here's how I see the fantasy value of 10 wide receivers who switched teams this year.

Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans
Clay's projections:
78 receptions (117 targets), 1,094 yards receiving, 7 TDs
Current ADP: WR14

At 32 years old, Jones has enough vertical juice to stretch defenses, and we know the Titans will scheme him up off play-action to throw crossers and in-breakers (see video above). Plus, there could be more red zone scoring upside for Jones this season with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Since joining the Titans, a league-best 38.1% of Tannehill's red zone throws have resulted in touchdowns, via ESPN researcher Kyle Soppe. While we know he will work as the No.2 in Tennessee opposite of AJ Brown, in an offense that leans on the run game, Jones is still a solid target as a mid-tier WR2.

Kenny Golladay, New York Jets
Clay's projections:
70 receptions (119 targets), 1,070 yards receiving, 7 TDs
Current ADP: WR25

Golladay has all the traits of a No.1 wide receiver. We can look at his ability to separate vertically, the catch radius/body control or the matchup skills in the red zone. And while I'm not sold that Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is more than just a mid-to-low tier starter, his deep completion percentage did rise to 59.4% from 40.4% in his rookie season. That meshes with Golladay, who since entering the league in 2017, ranks ninth in fantasy points per deep target among the 53 qualified receivers (minimum 150 receptions). Even with a pretty crowded group of pass catchers in New York, Golladay should see enough volume, and red zone opportunities, to jump into the lower-tier WR2 mix this season.

Will Fuller V, Miami Dolphins
Clay's projections:
69 receptions (105 targets), 934 yards receiving, 5 TDs
Current ADP: WR36

Fuller will miss the first game of the season due to a suspension, and we know he's had injuries. But, when active and on the field, Fuller is a proven explosive play target who can lift the top of the secondary. Before his suspension last season, Fuller saw a career-high 26.4% of his receptions gain 20-plus yards. Scheme him, insolate him and take your shots. He can roll. With the expectation that Miami does become a much more aggressive throwing offense in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's second pro season, Fuller has the traits to produce WR3 numbers, with more upside in Non-PPR formats due to his vertical stretch ability.

Curtis Samuel, Washington Football Team
Clay's projections:
74 receptions (107 targets), 874 yards receiving, 5 TDs; 21 carries, 119 yards rushing, 1 TD
Current ADP: WR40

Focus on the versatile traits with Samuel in an upgraded Washington offense that should be more explosive in the pass gamer with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Think of Samuel as a middle-of-the-field stretch option who can also be schemed as a motion/movement target. Fly sweeps here, screens, backfield touches. During Samuel's 2019 season in Carolina -- with current Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner -- the wide receiver saw 105 targets, with 19 rushing attempts. And he can produce from multiple alignments in matchup specific situations. He's a solid WR3 for me who can operate opposite of Terry McLaurin, and I see good value here given his current ADP.

Corey Davis, New York Jets
Clay's projections:
67 receptions (105 targets), 928 yards receiving, 4 TDs
Current ADP: WR48

With Davis, a physical route runner with enough juice to get loose after the catch, the scheme fit matches here under new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur; movement and misdirection that marries the run and pass game together. What does that lead to? Defined throwing windows for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson to target Davis, which also includes the scripted shot plays. Davis has yet to drop a deep ball in the league (99 targets), and he was targeted on a career-high 25.2% of routes run last season. Davis has the traits to produce in the Jets heavily schemed route tree, but with a rookie quarterback and competition for target volume, he checks-in as a Flex option.

Marvin Jones Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Clay's projections:
60 receptions (97 targets), 838 yards receiving, 5 TDs
Current ADP: WR50

Jones is a glider, a smooth technician in the route tree who can separate on deep crossers/overs and win red zone matchups. That's a positive for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence on play-action throws (hit the in-breakers), plus he can be a viable target this season when the Jags have the ball in scoring position. From 2017-20, Jones is tied for seventh in touchdown receptions (19), and he has scored on over 70% of his red zone catches during that same time span. I would select Jones later in drafts as a possible Flex play. There is scoring upside here for a Jacksonville offense that should have to throw with volume this season.

Nelson Agholor, New England Patriots
Clay's projections:
53 receptions (88 targets), 811 yards receiving, 4 TDs
Current ADP: WR60

Agholor played with some juice in Vegas last season, posting career-highs in in yards (896), target rate (19.9% of routes) and air yards per target (15.4). We saw his vertical ability, plus the catch and run traits. In New England, Agholor will play in another heavily-schemed pass offense, but how much volume does he see on a weekly basis? Remember, the Patriots can be run-heavy at times, and the addition of tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith factor in here, too. I would draft Agholor late and stash him on the bench. He has value on bye weeks, plus we have to monitor the quarterback situation in New England this season also, as a shift to rookie Mac Jones could create more opportunity for Agholor on timing and rhythm throws.

AJ Green, Arizona Cardinals
Clay's projections:
55 receptions (98 targets), 683 yards receiving, 5 TDs
Current ADP: WR61

Green has the veteran traits, plus he is a very nuanced route runner. However, both age and injuries have lowered the fantasy floor on Green, and he averaged just 1.6 yards per route run in '20, the lowest of his career. The red zone opportunities should be limited with DeAndre Hopkins on the field, too, plus the Cards run-heavy approach when in scoring position limits his upside. So, is Green still worth a late round flier? Maybe. Now, that's not a move I'm going to make, but if Arizona can run more three and four wide receiver sets, Green has some value as a matchup-dependent option in deeper leagues.

John Brown, Las Vegas Raiders
Clay's projections:
46 receptions (79 targets), 637 yards receiving, 4 TDs
Current ADP: WR67

Brown shouldn't be drafted as a volume target, and he's going to carry more value in Non-PPR formats. However, as a late round flier, there's upside. In Jon Gruden's offense, Brown can be schemed as a vertical option or set up off play-action. The veteran wide receiver has averaged just under 15 yards per catch over the course of his career, with 20 of his 31 career touchdown receptions coming off deep passes. That's a fit with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, in my opinion, who was much more willing to cut it loose on vertical throws last year. And for the Raiders to compete in the AFC West, they will have to create explosive plays in the pass game. Target Brown as a big play threat with WR3 upside in deeper leagues.

Breshad Perriman, Detroit Lions:
Clay's projections:
50 receptions (90 targets), 769 yards receiving, 4 TD; 4 carries, 22 yards rushing
Current ADP: WR69

With a chance to emerge as the No.1 wide receiver in Detroit, and being left undrafted in over 90% of early ESPN leagues, Perriman could be worth a pick in the late rounds due to his explosive ability in what should be a play-action heavy Lions' offense. Since 2018, Perriman has led all wide receivers (minimum 70 receptions) with 18.2 yards per catch. This is where you set up new quarterback Jared Goff to press the ball down the field off max protection. Throw the post, the deep corner, dig routes, more. If the volume is there, Perriman could be utilized as a flex/matchup dependent option in 12-14 team leagues.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: Should we be concerned about regression for Josh Allen in 2021?​


Josh Allen's 2020 fantasy football season was nothing short of extraordinary.

His 396.06 fantasy points paced all players, and were the fifth most in history by any quarterback. He made huge strides in his vertical passing -- throws that traveled at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- completing 53.2% of them and totaling 11 touchdowns, after completing only 35.0% with 13 touchdowns on those attempts in the previous two seasons combined.

Allen even led his Buffalo Bills to the AFC Championship Game, ultimately losing to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, though he did manage a respectable 287 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in that game.

Clearly, with the improvements he has made, Allen has established himself as one of the best up-and-coming quarterbacks in the game. By all rights, he's much closer in terms of true talent to the 2020 than the 2019 model.

But Allen's chances of repeating or exceeding such a campaign aren't great.

Allen's gains on vertical throws​

Kudos to Allen for the aforementioned improvements he made on these throws in 2020, which, while data isn't available from the 20th century, easily ranks among the greatest gains by any individual quarterback on record. He scored 31.9 more fantasy points on these throws in 2020 than he did in 2019, going from a total liability in that department at the time of his 2018 draft selection to having the third-best adjusted completion percentage and 11th-best QBR among qualifiers last season.

The problem, however, is that performance at the level Allen exhibited in 2020 hasn't been sustainable for almost anyone since the metric began being tracked in 2001. There were only 31 instances of a quarterback completing at least 50% of his vertical pass attempts in a qualified season in the century's first 19 seasons. Of those 31, only eight increased their fantasy points on vertical throws the following season.

The group, meanwhile, regressed by 8.2% in terms of completion percentage, by 1.5 yards per vertical pass attempt and by 0.11 fantasy points per such attempt. For Allen, the latter means a drop-off of nearly 12 points, should his regression match the league's average, considering he has averaged 105 vertical passes per season so far in his career.

Allen's rushing prowess​

Allen has quickly proved himself to be one of the game's most productive quarterbacks when running the football, the first in NFL history to score at least eight rushing touchdowns in three consecutive years, doing so in each of his first three NFL seasons. He is, in fact, already second all by himself on the all-time list of such seasons, trailing only Cam Newton's four (2011-12, 2015, 2020).

The problem with this is the fluky nature of quarterbacks' rushing touchdowns, and while Allen enters 2021 very clearly as one of the game's most reliable in this department, he's bound to be bitten by the regression bug one of these years. Last season, seven of his nine scores came on rushing attempts within three yards of the goal line. In two of those games (Weeks 8 and 12), his fantasy output would have actually hurt your fantasy team had the Bills not been in such a position to give him said chances. And in another one (Week 4), he would've dropped from a clear start-worthy effort to an ordinary one. Bear in mind that in only nine of Allen's 16 games did he finish among the top 10 QBs in fantasy points, tied for only third best at the position.

Newton provides a good comparison point for the unpredictable nature of rushing scores: Three times before 2020 he scored at least eight rushing TDs. He once managed at least eight in the subsequent season (2012's eight, coming off his rookie total of 14), and averaged 6.3 in those follow-up campaigns.

To put this another way, Mike Clay's outstanding work estimating expected touchdowns tells another story: Allen's three-year total for expected touchdowns was 19.4, compared to the 25 he actually scored, and he overperformed his expectation in the category in each of those three seasons. Sure, Allen benefits from often being his team's first read at the goal line, but projecting those opportunities year over year is difficult.

What history tells us about Allen-like, dominant fantasy seasons​

Again, Allen's 396.06 fantasy points were the fifth most by a quarterback in any season, but the passers who approached or reached the 400-point plateau have a troubling history of follow-up-year regression. Certainly Allen's odds of a repeat -- or improvement -- are greater than anyone in the game's lengthy history, if for no other reason than he's scheduled for an additional game in 2021. On a per-game basis, however, he's highly unlikely to repeat what was a 24.8 average, the seventh best in history by any quarterback with at least 12 games played.

Nine quarterbacks in history have ever scored 300-plus fantasy points -- considered the threshold for a "great" (yet no longer elite) performance in the modern game -- in consecutive seasons: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Lamar Jackson, Peyton Manning, Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson. Rodgers and Wilson each had multiple consecutive-season streaks, Brees' streak was six years in a row, one of Rodgers' streaks was four seasons and Manning, Rodgers and Watson each had a three-year streak.

But here's the catch: Only 14 of the 71 quarterbacks in history to score 300 points in a season managed to improve either their seasonal total or their points-per-game mark the following season. Brees, by the way, owns five of those 14 seasons. It's Brees who serves as the best-case comparison for Allen entering 2021, highlighting Brees' 2012-13 performance. In 2012, Brees scored 345.58 fantasy points to lead all QBs, only to improve that total to 357.68 in 2013, a second to record-setting Manning.

The key difference, of course, was that Brees had a deeper receiving corps then than Allen does now, with Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles leading the way, in addition to key supporting-cast contributors Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills. Stefon Diggs is an excellent No. 1 wide receiver, arguably on par with Colston of that era, but the Bills lack the kind of pass-catching tight end or running back akin to Graham or Sproles, with Dawson Knox at the former position and Devin Singletary and Zack Moss at the latter.

It's history that validates the age-old debate about paying up for the previous season's top quarterback, as the league's leader during the past decade has regressed in total fantasy points scored by a whopping 86.67 points in his follow-up campaign. The group also averaged 1.5 games missed in that subsequent season, so if you'd rather use prorated points per game over a 16-game season, then that group declined by 69.2 points.

That's not to say Allen declining by nearly 70 fantasy points -- and again, it might be closer to 50 at the average historical rate, in a 17-game campaign -- would make him devoid of value. But it'd make him a weak choice as a quarterback selection in the draft's first three rounds, and it's far from outrageous to make a case for any of Mahomes, Kyler Murray or Jackson to outscore him.

Every year, people in ESPN drafts race to get the previous season's highest-scoring quarterback. In the past five years (starting with the most recent), the first QB was selected 11th, 18th, 23rd, 18th and 13th overall. Allen's profile brings statistical variance, and there's no reason to think he's clearly better than the rest of the Mahomes/Murray/Jackson positional top tier. In fact, that there are four quarterbacks with a bona fide chance at a 400-point, 17-game campaign makes it much less mandatory to take one within even the first 40 selections of your draft.

Celebrate the guy's breakout, and enjoy his next steps. But from a fantasy draft perspective, temper your expectations for an Allen repeat.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: How to approach Saquon Barkley in drafts entering summer​


As the New York Giants open mandatory minicamp, their star running back is notably absent.

Coach Joe Judge has made it clear that Saquon Barkley is, in fact, very much present at the facility but his time is currently dedicated to rehabbing his knee.

Barkley was not expected to participate in football activities at this juncture; after all, he is just seven months removed from surgical reconstruction of his ACL along with a repair of the medial meniscus in his right knee. He is focused on his rehab efforts with an eye on returning to the fold at some point during training camp.

For those who might be thinking, "He was injured in Week 2 of the 2020 NFL season -- that was nine months ago, not seven," well, that's true. But due to the nature of his injury -- which also included damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) -- surgery was delayed approximately six weeks. This is not uncommon when there is a tear of the MCL, the ligament that reinforces the inner aspect of the knee and is critical for medial stability. The reason? The anatomy of the MCL and the common pattern of injury is such that it can often heal with time without the need for surgical repair. Allowing for this prior to initiating the reconstructive surgery assists with the overall recovery parameters.

The good news is that preserving the meniscus in turn helps to preserve the health of the knee joint. There is scientific evidence that cartilage breakdown is accelerated when the meniscus (a fibrocartilage disc, of which there are two in each knee, one on the medial aspect of the joint, one on the lateral aspect) is removed, resulting in increased bone-on-bone contact. Consequently, when meniscal repair is possible (something that is determined based on the location, size and pattern of the injury) it is preferred and can quite literally extend the career of the athlete. The challenge following meniscal repair is that it requires limiting range of motion and loading of the joint for several weeks post-surgery. In other words, it slows the entire recovery process in the early phases.

This is not to say the athlete can't "catch up" over the course of several months, but these early limitations can result in motion and strength deficits that must be fully addressed prior to resuming higher level, sports-specific activities.

2021 NFL Schedule | ESPN Sports Injury Glossary

When will Barkley return to pre-injury form?

Barkley's injury is a reminder that not all ACL injuries are identical. An isolated ACL tear, for instance, allows an athlete to progress more quickly through certain elements of rehab than a complex multiligament tear involving additional structures, such as, in his case, the medial meniscus.

Then there are the demands of the position. An explosive, physical runner like Barkley, whose style of play is predicated on breaking tackles and moving through opponents, requires him to be at peak strength to be effective. It can take additional time beyond returning to sport for an athlete to regain both the confidence in the surgical knee and the functional strength necessary to achieve pre-injury performance metrics.

In fact, past studies that have looked at performance metrics for NFL players undergoing ACL reconstruction have found a return to pre-injury form is often delayed by a season. It may not be until the second year post-surgery that athletes began to produce like their pre-injury selves in terms of yardage gained and touchdowns scored, data that matters in both real and fantasy football. A recent descriptive epidemiologic study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine looked specifically at performance metrics for NFL running backs and wide receivers post-ACL reconstruction and found receivers to have the most significant drops in performance data. However, while the data for running backs post-injury was not statistically significant in two of the three performance categories (rushes per game and rushing touchdowns per season), the production numbers did trend downward. In the third category, yards per rush, there was a statistically significant difference in the first two seasons post-ACL reconstruction.

It is worth noting that this study looked only at rushing performance metrics in the target group; many running backs nowadays have pass-catching responsibilities that enhance their productivity and their value. It is also important to note that there was no accounting for concomitant injury (such as meniscal injury), which could impact the results, there are no measures that take into account style of play (power back vs. finesse), or no accounting for depth chart status. While the results are interesting and provide some level of insight into initial post-op performance, the individual nature of an athlete's skill set, relevance to the team (is he a focus of the offense with a high individual workload or is he a second-tier member of a running back committee?) and the athlete's particular injury details are among the variables that can influence both the timing and level of an athlete's return to performance.

Fantasy expectations for 2021

So what are fantasy managers to do when it comes to evaluating Barkley's value entering the 2021 season? For starters, expect there to be increased confidence in making that assessment as it gets closer to the start of the season. Without any on-field work to go by at this point, most are operating under the assumption that Barkley will be ready to go by Week 1, and the Giants haven't specifically said anything to the contrary. But the team has also provided reasons to be cautious. Judge has already stated during minicamp that they will be smart with him and do what is best for his body.

"We are going to make sure that we take Saquon's rehab at the correct rate for his individual body and injury," Judge said Tuesday. "It's not any mirror of anybody else's injury out there. We have to make sure that we let him get it at his pace and put him on the field [when he] can play 100% aggressive and confident and he's going to play safe and he can play effective."

Even Barkley acknowledged an open-ended timeline.

"I have no expectation, no set day when I'm going to be full-go," Barkley said. "I'm going to come into work every single day because that's all I know."

The takeaway here is that while the team may still be looking toward the start of the season, it is also strongly hinting at the probability that Barkley will not be receiving his normal workload out of the gate. This is good news for Barkley's health and future career, but it may mean a delayed return on investment for fantasy purposes. How long it takes for him to ramp up to what would position him as a top-tier running back will depend on how he responds to that initial workload. Too much work too soon can result in a setback, whether it be with the surgically reconstructed knee or a compensatory soft tissue injury elsewhere (See: Cook, Dalvin, in 2018).

The questions for fantasy managers become: At what position are you willing to draft Barkley in your season-long league, assuming he will be operating under a controlled workload to start the season? Will his performance metrics when he is on the field reflect what they have been in the past? Based on the limited data that has been compiled on this topic to date, the expectation is that it will take time playing in actual game conditions for Barkley to return to his pre-injury form. When -- or even if -- that happens during this first post-op season remains to be seen.



Mar 6, 2018

Why D/ST has become the mandatory final pick in fantasy football drafts​


Defense might be a critical component to NFL success, but in fantasy football, the team defense construct carries nowhere near the same level of importance.

In fact, let's begin with a bold statement: It's no longer mandatory that you select your kicker with the final selection of the draft; you should instead select your kicker with your next-to-last pick, and your team defense/special teams with your final pick.

Among the reasons are the extreme difficulty in projecting defensive success year over year, due to positional statistical volatility and the large number of personnel that influence a D/ST's numbers, and the modest and decreasing fantasy point totals that D/STs provide. Ultimately, it's wisest to adopt a weekly streaming strategy at the position, rather than make a meaningful investment on draft day.

Projecting D/STs borders on the impossible​

To the point about year-over-year projections of D/STs, we as fantasy managers -- gauging all sorts of rankings and average draft position (ADP) measures throughout the industry -- have been quite consistent with two things.

1. We have been generally good at projecting the No. 1 defense

Taking simply ESPN's average draft position data from the past 10 seasons, the first team defense/special teams selected each season has averaged 141.2 fantasy points, scoring 130-plus in eight of 10 seasons. Granted, we've only once nailed the highest-scoring D/ST (the 2013 Seattle Seahawks), but in five of those 10 seasons the No. 1 D/ST in terms of ADP finished top five in positional scoring. That top pick usually does not let you down.

But it does carry an immense price tag in typical ESPN leagues, and certainly not one worthy of being top-five-at-the-position in only half of the past 10 seasons. Working backward, the first D/ST selected, on average, has gone 81st, 69th, 66th, 77th, 66th, 58th, 48th, 65th, 71st and 65th overall.

2. We have been terrible at projecting almost everything else at the position

In those same 10 seasons, the No. 2 defense in terms of ESPN ADP has been outscored by the No. 17 defense, on average, by more than 16 points, as well as in seven of 10 individual years. In addition, 11 of 14 defenses selected between those two slots (No. 2 and 17) have averaged a greater annual point total in that time span.

Even expanding beyond simply the No. 2 D/ST in terms of ADP, consider that seven of the 23 units that scored at least 160 fantasy points -- an average of 10 points per game -- were selected outside the top 16 at the position during the preseason. The same number of D/STs - seven -- were units that were selected in the top eight but managed fewer than 80 fantasy points -- just five points per game -- a point total that generally wouldn't earn a D/ST a top-20 seasonal finish at the position.

In 2020 alone, the No. 2 D/ST selected on average, the San Francisco 49ers, finished 13th in the position in scoring (88 points). The top-scoring D/ST, the Los Angeles Rams (159 points), was selected 17th at the position on average, and was rostered to teams in only 13.9% of ESPN leagues at the time.

As mentioned at the top, one of the reasons for this annual volatility is the massive amount of personnel involved in comprising a team defense/special teams. Offseason moves have at least as much of an impact on D/ST numbers as any fantasy skill position, and talent, coaching scheme and the schedule influence the results more here than at the other positions as well. Think of it as the equivalent of combining all of your quarterback, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends into a single unit, then trying to project which will be the best for fantasy. Not quite so easy, right?

Defensive production has severely declined​

Even accounting for the former point, the idea of pushing a D/ST selection beyond that of your kicker might seem odd from a casual standpoint. Kickers, after all, provide much less value compared to fantasy-league replacement level than D/STs, as the No. 1 kicker in 2020 (Jason Sanders) scored 37 more points than did the No. 11 kicker (Harrison Butker), whereas the No. 1 D/ST (Rams) scored 68 more points than did the No. 11 D/ST (Arizona Cardinals/Green Bay Packers tied).

Here's the problem with that approach: The difference in scoring between the average top-10 kicker and top-10 D/ST widened, to 23.6 points (149.0 for kickers, 122.4 for D/STs), the widest gap between the positions at any point during the past half-decade. It's kicker that is now providing you a more reliable level of weekly production, and since the game's top offenses are generally easy to project, the very best at that position are more important resources to acquire than unpredictable defenses.

Consider this league-wide trend: The NFL's 32 defenses, in 2020, scored a combined 2,424 fantasy points, the fewest in any season since the 1950s, when defensive data wasn't nearly as detailed as it is today and there were only 12 teams in the league. And yes, there were more fantasy points scored by D/STs in the strike-shortened 1982 season, in which teams played nine games apiece.

Three of the four seasons since the merger in which the league's D/ST total for fantasy points finished beneath 3,000 have occurred in the past five years: 2020 (2,424), 2016 (2,927) and 2018 (2.942). It's not only bad defenses pulling the total down; the top-10 fantasy D/STs have combined for less than 1,200 points in six of the past seven seasons, slipping to just 977 last season. While the 2020 season might've been a slight aberration due to COVID-19 absences and schedule shuffling, as well as the lack of a preseason, there's still a clear trend that increasingly favors offense over the past decade.

That trend puts your weekly D/ST at heightened risk -- more so than at any point in fantasy football's history -- of blow-up performances, something you're not going to see as often at the kicker position. Yes, avoidance of bad numbers has an influence on your drafting strategy.

Stream, stream, stream!​

We've said it for several years on these pages, but a streaming D/STs strategy is, at least in general, the way to go at the position. Sure, there's a point in the draft at which the No. 1-graded unit is worth the pick, if it slips in your league, but barring some sort of strong gut instinct about a specific D/ST target or deep research that supports your case for an earlier-than-16th-round selection, make your D/ST your final pick and instead seek to stream your position's matchup each week.

Data from the past 10 seasons supports this angle: If you took only bottom-half defenses in fantasy points (17th or worse that season) and their matchups against offenses that finished among the 10 worst in terms of both total yards and points scored, 38.2% of those D/STs managed a top-10 finish in the given week, in terms of fantasy points. Of those, 16.1% finished top five for the week. Now compare those to the top-10 selected D/STs during the same time period, facing any opponent: 41.6% managed a top-10 weekly finish, while 21.9% finished top five.

While that's still a 3.4% better rate of top-10 finishes and 5.8% better for top five for the known draft-day commodities, consider some key differences:

• The former set excludes defenses that might've finished in the upper half (the top 16) in seasonal scoring, yet were widely available in ESPN fantasy leagues, since our standard game has only 10 units starting in any given week.

• Additionally, those going the streaming route have the advantage of 2021 results to help mold their weekly decisions, meaning that it's increasingly easier to gauge what's a good matchup once we get into the regular season, boosting your odds of success.

I still prefer the idea of scouting a back-end, draft-day defense to take with my final pick, preferably one that has a favorable September schedule, then stream the position for as long as it takes to find one that sticks. In the event one does stick, then I do keep it around through its bye week, adding a streaming replacement for that week. Streaming, however, always remains the first read.

Whichever your preference, the recent NFL trends make it clear: You need to go the dirt-cheap route at the position.



Mar 6, 2018

The new reality for Odell Beckham Jr.'s fantasy value​


Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has top-10 traits at the position. Just look at the nuanced route running. It's high level. Or focus on the explosive-play juice he brings to the field. Yeah, OBJ can stretch you vertically or erase pursuit angles in the open field. What about the catch radius to finish? That puts him in a position to make highlight grabs outside of his frame.

But as much as I love the talent with Beckham, we have to understand that fantasy football is a weekly game. And with a current ADP of WR26, which I think is pretty fair, the veteran is now in that WR3/flex range as he enters his second season in Browns coach Kevin Stefanski's run-heavy system.

Let's look a little deeper at Beckham's role, usage and his pass-game volume in Cleveland -- because it tells us there is a new reality for the wide receiver as a fantasy option entering the '21 season.

Cleveland's offensive structure

Last season, Cleveland ranked fourth in the NFL with 495 rushing attempts. Not a surprise, really, when looking at Stefanski's offensive philosophy, or the roster construction to fit his system. Remember, the Browns feature what may be the league's best running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, in addition to an offensive line that is built to move defenders off the ball.

In fact, the Browns held a 45.6% rush rate last season, while ranking 21st in offensive snaps and 26th in offensive pace. The old-school tempo here is slower, with a mirrored run/pass game that creates play-action opportunities for quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The result? An average of 5.9 targets -- and 3.3 receptions -- per game for Beckham last season, on his way to a total of 23 receptions for 319 yards in just seven games played. And while we are still operating with a small sample size given the ACL injury that cut Beckham's season short, his usage with Stefanski points to a receiver who -- if healthy enough to play a full slate of games in '21 -- will be in that 55-70 catch range.

With that projected reception total, Beckham would fit more as a flex option in your lineup.

Red zone limitations

During his peak fantasy years with the New York Giants from 2014 to '16, Beckham ranked third in red zone targets (64), red zone catches (36) and red zone TD catches (19), according to ESPN Fantasy researcher Kyle Soppe. Beckham was a prime option inside the plus-20 yard line, which brought instant offense and scoring upside to fantasy managers.

Throw the fades, slants, isolation routes. Let him win the one-on-ones, climbing the ladder to finish or using his sudden ability to separate. Go get six.

But we simply don't see that in Cleveland. Over the past two seasons with the Browns, Beckham has seen a red zone target in only 11 of his 23 games played, with a total of just 17 red zone targets, seven receptions and two touchdowns. That really hurts fantasy managers in all scoring formats.

Now look at it under Stefanski in 2020, where Beckham saw six red zone targets in seven games, with three receptions and one score -- on a schemed slant route in the Week 4 win over a subpar Dallas defense. Given Stefanski's recent history when his offenses have the ball in scoring position, I doubt the script will change.

When Stefanski called the plays for the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, the Vikings led the NFL in red zone rush rate at 60.1%. Yes, the number dipped slightly in his first season with the Browns to 53.8%, but that's still a top-10 red zone rush rate in the league. I get it, too. The head coach wants to put his bigs on the field and run the rock. And that doesn't translate to a major uptick in red zone targets for Beckham this season.

Beckham's route tree

Going into last season, I had Beckham slated as a WR2 in part because of the efficient pass game under Stefanski and the schemed verticals.

Think of the play-action shot plays for Mayfield. Max-up the protection, or boot the quarterback outside of the pocket. There's a reason the Browns led the NFL at 3.04 seconds before the pass in 2020. Those are designed concepts to give Mayfield time on deeper developing routes. And the Browns' quarterback delivered, with a deep on-target rate of 70.8%, which ranked ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

We saw an example of this with Beckham early in the season, during the Week 2 win over the Bengals (see video above). Run the boot concept with Beckham on a schemed double-move. That's how you set the table for your No. 1 receiver, catering to his route-running skills and the ability to separate on a third-level throw.

We're rolling here. And I expected more of this. Scheme him up on the double-moves, the deep overs or the straight go routes. There's your explosive-play target on play-action throws for Mayfield.

But, after seven games, Beckham checked in with only three explosive-play receptions (20 yards or more). That includes the vertical concepts, the catch-and-run balls, the isolation throws. In fact, Beckham, who used to rip off explosive plays on three-step slant routes in New York, averaged just 1.96 yards after the catch last season.

Do I think Stefanski can scheme more for Beckham to isolate him inside? Yes. Without a doubt. Go empty, flex a running back outside and target OBJ as a slot man. There's your free space to work, your free access off the ball and the open grass to attack. But, again, those opportunities are limited based on the tape and the numbers, as Beckham caught just 5-of-7 targets for 55 yards from slot alignments last season.

There is no question that Beckham can eat up the cushion on defensive backs and win into the boundary. That's on the tape. Run the comeback and the deep out. Nasty stuff. But, regardless of the scoring format I am playing in, I'm going to need some more big-play juice in my lineup from a receiver who isn't getting consistent target volume or scoring touchdowns.

Is Beckham still a weekly must-play?

ESPN's Mike Clay has Beckham projected to catch 69 passes (on 119 targets) for 980 yards and eight touchdowns this season. I would agree with Mike here, as long as Beckham can answer the questions about his availability after missing at least four games in three of the past four seasons due to injuries.

For now, let's say Beckham stays pretty healthy this season and he plays close to a full schedule. Even then, we have to remember that during his first two seasons in Cleveland, he's had only three games with more than 100 scrimmage yards, only one game with eight receptions and one more with seven grabs. And in that same time frame, Beckham has eight games with three or fewer receptions.

We all know Beckham is capable of ripping off monster games. And the Cleveland offense could facilitate those days where he catches multiple deep balls, or he gets loose on a couple underneath crossers with daylight after the catch. However, is that enough to make him a weekly starter in your lineup, or is Beckham now more of a matchup play?

In my summer non-PPR ranks, Beckham is my No. 23 WR. That's just slightly above his ADP. But I think his overall ceiling is somewhere in the high-end WR2 range, with a floor that is considerably lower due to the inconsistent volume, limited red zone opportunities and the overall offensive structure in Cleveland that we discussed above. That inconsistency makes him difficult to trust on a weekly basis, even as a WR3 or flex.

Yes, "talent rules" in fantasy, and Beckham has plenty of it. But there is also a new reality here that points to a receiver who might not check enough boxes to find a home in your lineup every week.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: Is Logan Thomas a one-hit wonder or a legit TE1?​


The heart of 2021 fantasy football draft season is still a couple months away, but early indications suggest that the general public is not buying into a repeat performance from 2020 breakout tight end Logan Thomas.

Average draft position (ADP) data from the past few weeks shows Thomas coming off the board in the ninth round (eight tight ends are going earlier) of 12-team best ball leagues. That's quite the value for a player who finished as fantasy's No. 3 TE last season.

Thomas, who turns 30 on July 1, was drafted as a quarterback in 2014, but made the conversion to tight end in 2017. He was limited to a 35-317-2 receiving line on 55 targets during the 2017-19 seasons with Buffalo and Detroit prior to his breakout last season with the Washington Football Team.

Thomas played a massive 92% of Washington's offensive snaps last season. In fact, his 972 snaps and 584 pass routes led the position. Thomas also ranked top-four in targets (108) and receptions (72) while finishing no lower than ninth in yardage (670), touchdowns (six), OTD (5.7) and end zone targets (nine). Thomas received fewer than four targets in only one game and reached seven in eight of 17 games (including a nine-target effort in the wild card round). As ESPN NFL Nation Washington Football Team reporter John Keim wrote, Thomas won't catch anyone by surprise this season.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thomas' big season was that he achieved it with four different quarterbacks. Of his 117 targets (including the playoff game), 50 came from Dwayne Haskins (31-239-1 receiving line), 42 from Alex Smith (30-281-3), 15 from Taylor Heinicke (9-122-0) and 10 from Kyle Allen (7-102-2). None of those four quarterbacks are projected starters in 2021 and yet Thomas produced at least one top-10 fantasy week with all four last season.

In 2021, Thomas will benefit from the arrival of Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 38-year-old's gunslinger mentality is well-documented, but it has resulted in strong play the past two seasons (he ranked fifth in QBR in 2020 and eighth in 2019). It's also resulted in good production for his top tight end during the span, as Fitzpatrick helped Mike Gesicki to a pair of top-12 fantasy campaigns.

The elephant in the room is, of course, Thomas' path to a consistently large target share. With Washington devoid of difference-makers at wide receiver behind Terry McLaurin last season, Thomas handled 19% of the targets and 22% of the air yards. The thought is that both numbers could drop this season after Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and third-round pick Dyami Brown were added at wide receiver, but I'm not so sure. Consider Washington's 2020 target distribution by position: RB 27%, WR 52%, TE 20%. That's compared to 19%, 60% and 21% league averages, respectively, and suggests that perhaps it's the running back room that will see a dip in targets (I'm looking at you, J.D. McKissic, with your ugly average of 5.3 YPT on an absurd 111 targets).

With all of that in mind, I landed on a 17% target share for Thomas in 16 projected games (18-19% weekly average). That still allows a healthy 24% share for McLaurin, 18% for Samuel, 13% combined for Humphries and Brown and 23% (still above league average) for the running backs. Assuming a midrange scoring offense, that's enough for McLaurin to post fringe WR1 numbers, Samuel and McKissic to push for flex production and lead back Antonio Gibson to post good RB2 numbers. It's also enough to allow a 67-705-6 receiving line on 101 targets for Thomas, which certainly places him in the midrange TE1 mix with a shot at another top-five fantasy campaign.

Thomas is one of the most undervalued players in early fantasy drafts and very easily could outscore tight ends being selected ahead of him on some sites, including T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Dallas Goedert and rookie Kyle Pitts. A lot like Darren Waller this time last year, Thomas is being knocked on draft day because he has added competition for targets, but as Waller showed, good players get the rock. Taking advantage of Thomas' cheap cost is one path to maximizing your starting lineup in 2021.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football 2021 dynasty rookie running back rankings​


With college pro days underway and the draft quickly approaching, it's time to look at the fantasy outlook of incoming rookies for the 2021 season.

We don't yet know which teams these first-year players will take snaps for, so there's still plenty to be learned. However, to help you begin scouting the top incoming talent, I've ranked the prospects based on my observations from their college careers.

Here's a look at the best fantasy-relevant running back talent in the 2021 NFL draft pool.

(Note: References to where a player ranks in a statistical category relative to "this year's class" is referring to a sample including only players invited to the 2021 NFL combine.)

Top fantasy rookie running backs​

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne is arguably the most explosive running back in this year's rookie class, and he also brings strong pass-catching ability to the table. Etienne stands 5-foot-10, 210 pounds and was extremely productive during four years at Clemson, racking up 6,107 yards and 78 touchdowns on 788 touches. That includes 85 receptions over the past two seasons, which is most in this year's class.

Etienne's elusiveness jumps off the page, as his 4.1 YAC ranks third and his 3.3 forced missed tackle rate over the past three seasons ranks sixth in this year's class. It's unknown if Etienne will be utilized as a workhorse in the pros, but his standout speed, playmaking and receiving ability (though he'll need to clean up the drops) certainly suggest RB1 upside is on the table. He will likely be one of the top two RBs drafted and is an elite fantasy prospect.

2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

The first of a pair of top RB prospects out of UNC, Williams' calling card is elite tackle-breaking skills and elusiveness. Williams has the second-best YAC (4.1) and forced missed tackle rates (3.0) over the past three seasons in this year's class and was top-two in both stats in 2020, as well.

Williams has terrific size (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) and is an aggressive and explosive rusher with respectable receiving production (his 25 catches in 2020 were third most in this class). Limited speed and a small sample of work (a majority of his elite play came on 182 touches in 2020) are the primary concerns, but Williams is one of the youngest backs in this class (21) and his elusiveness profile is extremely intriguing. The likely Day 2 pick will be a solid first-round investment in rookie drafts.

3. Najee Harris, Alabama

Standout RB prospects from Alabama are nothing new, but Harris is a bit of a unicorn in that he is huge (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and an outstanding receiver with a large catch radius (43-425-4 receiving line in 2020). We'd usually expect someone as large as Harris to dominate after initial contact, but where he really stands out is his elusiveness. His 3.1 forced missed tackle rate during the past three seasons was third best in this year's class.

Harris benefited from Alabama's elite offensive line, needs to improve as a pass-blocker (class-high 12 blown blocks over the past three seasons) and is severely lacking in speed, but his combination of size, strength, tackle-breaking, elusiveness and receiving ability is more than enough to supply him with RB1 upside.

Harris is one of the oldest backs in this class (23), which is factored in here, but he'll be selected in the late first or early second round of April's draft and should be a top pick in fantasy rookie drafts.

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina

The second of two top RB prospects from UNC, Carter is much smaller (5-foot-9, 199 pounds), but a superior pass-catching prospect compared to ex-teammate Javonte Williams. Carter was very effective in 2020, averaging 8.0 YPC and running for 10-plus yards on 23% of his carries (both best in class).

Carter is athletic, agile and runs hard, but his lack of size and speed, as well as blocking limitations could lead him to a change-of-pace/kick-returner role in the pros. If that proves the case, Carter's fantasy upside will be limited, but he'll still have value in PPR formats.

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Gainwell (5-foot-11, 191 pounds) is an undersized scat back with average speed who figures to make his name as a pass-catcher and perhaps in the slot in the pros. The Memphis product's receiving prowess is apparent, as he showed good hands and elusiveness, as well as elite agility while averaging a massive 9.7 yards per target during his final two FBS seasons.

Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season, so we haven't seen him in a while, and, though he did handle a big workload in 2019, he's unlikely to find his way to goal-line work or a three-down role in the pros. Of course, the likes of James White and Tarik Cohen have shown us that there are several paths to top-15 RB production. Gainwell will be a very intriguing PPR target if drafted on Day 2 of April's draft.

6. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

Sermon is big (6-foot, 224 pounds) and was a solid backfield presence while racking up 455 carries during three seasons at Oklahoma and one at OSU.

Sermon is agile and explosive for his size, but benefited from some terrific offensive line play (3.9 yards before contact in 2020) and is average in terms of speed and athleticism. Though respectable as a pass-blocker, Sermon hasn't shown much prowess in the passing game, hauling in a total of 48 passes over four seasons and catching a poor 79% of his catchable targets since 2018.

Sermon does sport a good and consistent elusiveness profile (top 10 in this class in both YAC and FMT rate over the past three seasons), so while his fantasy upside may be limited, there's some reason for optimism about his rushing contributions in the pros.

7. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

If you're a fan of elusiveness, tackle-breaking skills and post-contact production, Stevenson should be your favorite sleeper in this year's rookie class.

The Oklahoma product is oversized at 6-foot, 229 pounds but is still quick and shifty. Granted, his sample size is very small (165 carries, 34 targets over 19 career games), but Stevenson's 4.8 YAC and 2.9 forced missed tackle rate during that span are both tops in this year's class. As if that wasn't enough, Stevenson averaged 12.8 receiving yards after the catch (RAC) on his 28 career receptions, which is fourth best in this class.

Stevenson's inexperience is a concern, considering he is one of the oldest backs in this class (23), but he'll be a sneaky end-of-bench hold in dynasty leagues.

8. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Patterson is on the small side (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) and he is not especially fast, but he is young (21), tough and efficient. Patterson's cutting, balance and elusiveness jumps off the page, as his 3.6 YAC is seventh best and his 4.1 FMT rate is fourth best in this year's class. Patterson didn't get much work in the pass game at Buffalo (25 career targets), but he was effective when called on, averaging a class-best 10.8 yards per target. Patterson may be looking at a scat back/change-of-pace role in the pros, but his age, work ethic and skill set suggest there is room for more.

9. Demetric Felton, UCLA

Felton is listed with the running backs, but the 5-foot-9, 189-pound pass-catching standout very well could play wide receiver in the pros (his 14% target share over the past three seasons is easily highest in this class). Felton doesn't project as much of a factor between the tackles or as a traditional rusher and lacks speed and post-contact production, but he is shifty and explosive with the ball in his hands. He didn't get much help before initial contact at UCLA, which led to a lot of negative runs (25%), but his overall elusiveness profile is solid. Felton looks destined for a change-of-pace/receiving specialist/kick-returner role.

10. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

Herbert is one of the oldest backs in this class (23) but is a strong 5-foot-9, 205 pounds and is coming off a highly productive and efficient 2020 campaign. The former Hokie (and Kansas Jayhawk) has decent wheels and made his fair share of big plays at the FBS level. That was built on strong post-contact production (his 4.0 YAC over the past three seasons is fourth best in this class). Herbert was rarely used as a pass-catcher (28 career targets) and has a ways to go as a blocker, which is concerning, considering his size figures to limit his rushing volume in the pros. Herbert is an intriguing rushing prospect but is likely headed for a committee/backup and kick-returner gig.

11. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

Hubbard has been busy the past three seasons, racking up 585 carries and 67 targets on 1,514 snaps. The Oklahoma State product stands 6-foot-1, 207 pounds and showed serviceable ability as both a rusher and receiver while also chipping in as a kick-returner, though his elusiveness profile doesn't stack up with this year's top RB prospects. Hubbard has struggled with fumbles (11 in his career), and his efficiency plummeted in seven 2020 games after a terrific breakout campaign in 2019 that saw him produce 2,292 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games. Hubbard has the look of a backup in the pros.

12. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Hill is a big (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) and tough downhill, power runner with good tackle-breaking, ball-protection (zero fumbles on 437 touches over the past three seasons) and receiving chops. Red flags include age (23) and a lack of patience and vision, but Hill looks like a solid backfield option.

13. Javian Hawkins, Louisville

Hawkins is a smaller back (5-foot-9, 196 pounds) without much strength -- but with outstanding quickness, explosiveness and big-play ability and solid hands in the pass game. Hawkins won't be much of an option between the tackles -- he lost yards on class-high 26% of his 399 carries over the past three seasons -- but he has a decent elusiveness profile and could thrive as a change-of-pace rusher and receiving specialist.

14. Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana

Mitchell has good size (5-foot-10, 218 pounds) and physical tools, as well as plus speed and burst. The Louisiana product's elusiveness profile is good (sixth-best YAC in this class over the past three seasons) and his receiving efficiency was outstanding (10.4 YPT during the same span). Mitchell certainly benefited from a terrific offensive line and light schedule in the Sun Belt, but he checks a lot of boxes, making him an interesting sleeper.

15. Trey Ragas, Louisiana

Ragas is a big (5-foot-10, 222 pounds), physical runner who has one of the best elusiveness profiles in this year's class. On a respectable sample of 454 carries and 53 targets over the past three seasons, Ragas' 3.9 YAC ranks fifth and his 3.7 FMT rate eighth. Ragas lost yardage on only 12% of his carries, which is best in this class, and his rushing efficiency is otherwise good to great across the board. Ragas' passing game usage plummeted the past two seasons. So, especially considering his average efficiency in that department, it's a concern that he may not be much of a factor in that department in the pros. Ragas projects as an effective NFL rusher and is thus an intriguing fantasy sleeper.

16. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State

Jefferson sports an average frame (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) and is a downhill rusher without much burst and speed. Jefferson's efficiency is concerning, as his elusiveness/YAC profile is weak and he struggled with fumbles. Jefferson caught 43 balls in 27 games at Oregon State and is unlikely to be much of a receiving option in the pros, which figures to limit his fantasy output.

17. Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas

Williams is an undersized back (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) with plus shiftiness and elusiveness. He loaded the stat sheet as both as rusher and receiver at Kansas, but size limitations won't allow much usage as a rusher or pass-protector in the pros. Williams' quickness and combination of good hands and route running in the pass game figure to lead to a pass-catching/gadget/kick-returner role at the next level. Some teams will have off-field concerns following his 2018 domestic battery arrest, charge and suspension.

18. Chris Evans, Michigan

Evans is the oldest back in this year's class (turns 24 this summer) and is very much a wild card after missing all of 2019 due to academic suspension and barely seeing the field (25 touches) in six games in 2020. Evans was productive on 244 touches during three seasons spanning 2016-18, but that was obviously quite a while ago. Evans has decent size (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) and is a good athlete with an ability to make explosive plays as both a rusher and receiver.

19. Larry Rountree III, Missouri

Rountree has decent size (5-foot-11, 216 pounds), toughness and quickness but is an older back (23) with a poor elusiveness profile. Among 24 tailbacks invited to the combine, Rountree's forced missed tackle rate ranked 22nd and his YAC 21st over the past three seasons. He caught only 42 passes in 35 games during that same span, and his 4.5 YPT suggests he won't be much of a factor in that department. There doesn't appear to be much upside for the probable late-round pick or undrafted free agent.

20. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas

Boyd is a decent athlete but sports a poor efficiency profile from his time at Arkansas, including underwhelming YAC and elusiveness numbers. That was especially the case during a horrific showing on 92 touches in 2020 (3.8 YPC, 2.5 YPT). Boyd will need to cut down on drops and fumbles and improve as a pass-blocker and receiver.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: Is Jalen Hurts the next to use his legs to finish as a top-10 QB?​


What Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson achieved statistically during the 2019 NFL season was incredible, but football fans and fantasy football managers alike should never again expect someone to throw 36 touchdown passes and rush for more than 1,200 yards in the same season. Focus more on Jackson's 2020 numbers because they were more reasonable, realistic and repeatable. Jackson was a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2020.

That may be Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in 2021. Those numbers, the ones Jackson achieved just last season, are attainable for him.

The obvious similarity between Jackson and Hurts is their running ability, and while we love passing yards and touchdowns, the running is what separates them for fantasy football excellence. Neither remind us of Dan Marino when throwing the football, and neither seems quite blessed with someone such as Jerry Rice to catch it. However, these great athletes add significant value with their legs. Hurts showed it in his brief audition in 2020, but really, this could be any quarterback with running ability. Never ignore them in fantasy or otherwise.

The Eagles surprised many when they ignored significant other needs and chose Hurts, the gifted Oklahoma quarterback, in the second round of the 2020 draft. Myriad questions followed, not the least of which dealt with how starting quarterback Carson Wentz may handle the pressure and sudden competition. He did not handle it well. Once given the opportunity, Hurts proved he was an unfinished product as a passer in his four late-season starts but ... he can definitely add value with his legs.

Today, things are a bit different in Philadelphia. Wentz is gone and the Eagles made it clear they are all-in with Hurts by not drafting another quarterback. They chose Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to give him help. Later, they chose a prolific pass-catching running back in Kenneth Gainwell. They added to their offensive line depth in case of injury. Before injuries, this unit was among the best. Finally, the Eagles ousted Doug Pederson as coach and Nick Sirianni, perhaps more offensively open-minded, is in. The possibilities seem endless.

Hurts is clearly relevant from a fantasy football perspective, even if the Eagles may not exactly pile on the wins. I wrote about Hurts last summer, in the aftermath of the organization's stunning investment, and asked if he was the next Lamar Jackson. The Ravens, once they saw what they had in Jackson, constructed the offense around him. The Eagles are doing the same thing.

Sure, Hurts was not prolific throwing downfield a season ago, but the offense lacked any semblance of a deep, outside threat. Enter Alabama star Smith, who offers massive upside. Each of the team's running backs, from Miles Sanders to Boston Scott and Gainwell, catch passes. The offensive line is healthy, and deeper than a season ago. Tight end Dallas Goedert is on the precipice of emerging as a star. Sirianni offers a blank slate into how the offense can attack with Hurts as a Jackson-like weapon. It should be exciting.

For those worried about Hurts being an accurate passer or piling on the passing yards or touchdowns, worry about something else. Look at Jackson as an example. He averaged 22.2 PPR points per game in 2020, easily a top-10 figure at quarterback, and he did so without reminding people of Patrick Mahomes as a passer. Jackson did this with only 2,757 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes. He was Baker Mayfield in that regard, but then add in 1,000 rushing yards. Realize how valuable that makes a running passer!

According to ESPN researcher Kyle Soppe, 63.2% of Jackson's 2018 fantasy points came via his rushing prowess, an amazing and unsustainable figure. The average quarterback offered 13.2% of his fantasy points with typical running statistics that season. Jackson was more than competent as a passer in 2019, but still achieved a lofty 39.1% of his fantasy points running (and 42.8% last season). Hurts, in his small sample size, averaged 48.9% of his fantasy points with his legs, second to New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, at 50.3%. Newton was not an effective passer, though. Hurts was passable. Jackson's 2020 season is a reasonable, perhaps ceiling comp for him.

For more perspective on how running ability offers a seemingly limited quarterback more statistical ceiling, Hurts averaged 11.3 rushing points per game late last season, which is roughly what awesome Green Bay Packers star Aaron Jones achieved. Jones is a first-round pick in many leagues. Hurts rushed for 106 yards in his first start versus New Orleans, and topped 60 yards in his next two outings. He played only half of the finale, through no fault of his own, when the Eagles controversially tanked the Washington game for better draft position. It worked.

If Hurts can continue with his effective running in 2021 -- and there is no reason to believe the Eagles will attempt to change him -- then he is an extremely valuable player. Hurts averaged more fantasy points with his running last season than Miles Sanders did! Perhaps Sanders is still on the upswing statistically, and incidentally, he and Hurts excelled together. It's not as if Hurts running the football took away from Sanders, as he had his best fantasy performance of the season in the raw quarterback's first start.

Fantasy managers are going to gravitate to Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Tom Brady, and perhaps new Los Angeles Rams acquisition Matthew Stafford, reliable Atlanta Falcons starter Matt Ryan and Pittsburgh Steelers winner Ben Roethlisberger, but collectively, this group offers little value with their legs. Combined, they rushed for 221 yards. Hurts and Jackson may never throw the way they do, but the running ability more than offsets that. Hurts was a top-three fantasy quarterback in his three full games last season, on pace for 1,000 rushing yards. The pocket passers would need tons of passing yards and touchdowns to keep up.

Is Hurts a better fantasy selection than Brady, Stafford and the others? Well, he may be. Just because Jackson has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons -- something nobody else, including Michael Vick, has ever done -- hardly means Hurts will match him. Perhaps expecting something like what Arizona Cardinals star Kyler Murray achieved, with 819 rushing yards, is more reasonable.

Regardless, Hurts hardly needs to approach 4,000 passing yards or rush for 11 touchdowns to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. He has the offensive playmakers around him and the confidence of the organization. He just needs to be himself.
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Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: AFC East division storylines to watch​



Key fantasy offseason movement​

--The New England Patriots oddly signed not one, but a pair of relevant fantasy tight ends for QB Cam Newton to target. Alas, Hunter Henry was good for the Los Angeles Chargers, but never quite great for fantasy managers. Jonnu Smith emerged for the 2020 Tennessee Titans with eight touchdowns, but has still not reached 500 receiving yards in a season. If only one of them joined this team, that player would be rather intriguing in fantasy. In a projected timeshare, well, neither really is.

-Oh, speaking of Newton, eight touchdown passes versus 10 interceptions is a tough look, even when it comes with 12 rushing touchdowns. Nobody ever achieved the 8-10-12 line before! Newton may not get the chance to do it again if he cannot throw the football better and win games, as the organization added Alabama's Mac Jones with the No. 15 draft selection. This will be interesting!
--Perhaps Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa struggled as a rookie because he lacked wide receiver talent around him. It would not be the first time! The Dolphins may have thought so because they signed former Houston Texans WR Will Fuller V and drafted Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle. Problem solved! Well, maybe! Fantasy managers should remember the highly skilled Fuller must miss the first game as he finishes his PED suspension, and durability is hardly a strength.
--Then there are the New York Jets, sending QB Sam Darnold packing to the Carolina Panthers to make room for BYU star Zach Wilson with the No. 2 pick. Wilson figures to start right away, and the organization surrounded him with RBs Tevin Coleman and Michael Carter, along with WRs Corey Davis and Keelan Cole. So many quarterbacks to watch in the AFC East!

Something to prove​

--The Buffalo Bills were rather quiet for personnel moves after reaching the AFC championship game, and perhaps they could afford to be. Still, QB Josh Allen, awesome as he was in leading all of fantasy football with 396.06 PPR points in 2020, needs to prove he can achieve monster statistics again, even though a long-term contract seems inevitable. Colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft discussed Allen's plight earlier. Really, this entire offense may need validation. Can WR Stefon Diggs really lead the sport in receiving yards again? Will either of the young RBs Zack Moss or Devin Singletary emerge?
--The Dolphins spoke volumes in free agency and the draft when they did not bring in an obvious competitor to push occasionally intriguing RB Myles Gaskin. Sure, former Los Angeles Rams bruiser Malcolm Brown is new and may handle short yardage opportunities, but Gaskin should get every chance to be a RB2 in fantasy, perhaps the only one in the division. He just has to do it!

--Numerous wide receivers in this division also have something to prove. Diggs was amazing, but nobody expects another 127 catches and 1,535 yards. The Dolphins, Jets and Patriots, in no particular order, each brought in wide receiver help for their young and old quarterbacks (no in between here). The Patriots wildly overpaid for ordinary WR Nelson Agholor, for example, after he caught 48 passes -- eight of them for scores -- in his lone Las Vegas Raiders season.

Whose fantasy stock may fluctuate?​

--New England's running back and wide receiver situations seem less than ideal, and fantasy managers may choose to ignore all Patriots in the first half of drafts. RBs Damien Harris and Sony Michel figure to share early-down duties, but neither is a pass-catching option. James White is, but he disappointed last season. Agholor and Kendrick Bourne came via free agency, but neither excites. White, with some promise of regular third-down work, could be the team's top PPR option.
--The Bills could clear things up for fantasy managers at running back by giving either Moss or Singletary summer words of praise. Good luck with that. Watch newcomer Matt Breida, the former San Francisco 49ers temptation, muddy things up even more. Meanwhile, Allen is the lone QB in the division likely trusted in standard redraft formats.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: NFC East division storylines to watch​



Key fantasy offseason movement​

--New York Giants fans desire a new quarterback and they may get one for 2022, but for now disappointing Daniel Jones gets another chance, with WR Kenny Golladay brought in as his top weapon. Golladay was fantastic for the Detroit Lions in 2019, but a hip injury ruined much of his 2020 season. It may not be hip to expect much from this passing offense, but at least the organization tried to improve. Still, Jones is not exactly Matthew Stafford, so we should not expect Golladay to thrive like 2019. He initially misses my top 25 PPR wide receivers.

--The Washington Football team added QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR Curtis Samuel, and in each case, they may be precisely what electric WR Terry McLaurin needed, someone to throw deep and some other weapon to attract attention! Fitzpatrick may have to battle Taylor Heinicke, the surprise from the team's wild-card game loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I think fantasy managers underrate the bearded wonder from Harvard. He threw for multiple touchdowns in five of seven starts for the Miami Dolphins last season.

--Perhaps they had little choice, but the Philadelphia Eagles sent QB Carson Wentz packing to the Indianapolis Colts, presenting Jalen Hurts the starting job in just his second season. Hurts may be more valuable in fantasy than real life, though, and if he cannot win games, the Eagles boast impressive draft capital to replace him in 2022. Still, Hurts seems safe to start in 2021 and if he runs the way we think he will (he averaged 68 rushing yards in four starts), he will be a valuable fantasy option.

Something to prove​

--How 'bout those Dallas Cowboys, who re-signed QB Dak Prescott to a long-term contract, hoping he performs like the 2020 version, who was on a record statistical pace before breaking his ankle in Week 5. Prescott certainly has the receivers around him to shine, and reports are positive about his health.

--RB Saquon Barkley tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in Week 2, and even though that appears enough time to return to full health by September, the Giants are taking things cautiously with him this offseason. In addition, when ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell appears concerned, we should all appear concerned. Remember, Barkley was the No. 2 selection in most fantasy drafts in 2020, but if the organization continues to discuss ways to compromise his workload, he must slip in drafts.

--Speaking of the Giants, fantasy managers continue to judge TE Evan Engram as one of the top 10 producers at his shallow fantasy position, but it would be nice to see some relevant numbers deserving of the honor. Engram caught six touchdown passes as a rookie in 2017; he has eight touchdowns (one rushing) in three years since then.

--Speaking of higher first-round selections, Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott was not efficient in 2020, and while most blame the absence of his quarterback, Elliott simply looked different on the field. The expectation is Elliott rebounds to prior status, but he needs to prove it.

--Frankly, all the running backs in this division have something to prove. The Eagles' Miles Sanders may have issues with fumbling and durability. Washington's Antonio Gibson was not a high-volume option. This division really could provide four of the top 10 running backs in fantasy, or it may give us four relative disappointments.

Whose fantasy stock may fluctuate?​

--The obvious situation to watch here is with Barkley's health and the proverbial picture the Giants paint about workload. If it looks like Barkley initially may share touches with newcomer Devontae Booker, which seems rather silly, then he may fall from the top five in drafts. There is risk there regardless.

--Hurts is going to make fantasy friends with his legs, but the Eagles drafted Heisman Trophy-winning WR DeVonta Smith from Alabama, and that figures to help the quarterback. Everyone loves and tends to overrate the rookies, in real life and fantasy, and Smith figures to rise in drafts as the summer goes on. Just remember Hurts is hardly the most accurate passer in the league.

--As of this writing, the Eagles still employ TE Zach Ertz, the record holder for most receptions in a season at the position. It is far from a secret that they want his contact off the books. In Philadelphia, Ertz competed with Dallas Goedert for targets; on a new team, they would compete for fantasy love. Goedert is younger, seemingly established in drafts. Ertz may not go in drafts at all.

--Cowboys WR Amari Cooper overcame the quarterback situation to catch a career-best 92 passes and he topped 1,000 receiving yards for the fourth time, but some think CeeDee Lamb, entering his second season, offers more upside. Good problem to have, Dallas. Fantasy managers may take Cooper and Lamb among the WR2 options, but the order could switch, which is a story in itself.



Mar 6, 2018

Best 3-set wide receiver groups for fantasy football​


The NFL continues to evolve as so to must our fantasy analysis.

Back in 2007, NFL offenses had three or more wide receivers on the field for 55% of pass plays. That number reached an all-time high at 76% in 2016 and was at 73% each of the past two seasons.

The drastic change in personnel usage has led to fewer wasted snaps on fullbacks (multiple RB sets are down from 27% to 9% during the span) and more usage and targets for wide receivers who were once considered bench players, but are now de facto starters in most schemes.

By evaluating the personnel usage of each team and coach, we can determine which players' snap counts will get a boost -- and those who will see a dip. Of course, it's not as simple as just looking at last season's numbers as roster turnover and especially coaching changes are sure to have an effect.

Down below is a projection of how often each offense will have three or more wide receivers on the field in 2021, as well as a look at the players who will be most affected in fantasy.

This evaluation of each offensive scheme can give you a leg up on your leaguemates on draft day.

Note: Mentions of three-plus wide receiver sets throughout this article refer only to pass plays. The asterisk "*" represents the projected offensive playcaller for each team.


1. Buffalo Bills
HC: Sean McDermott, OC: Brian Daboll*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 90%

Buffalo is a good bet to repeat as the NFL leader in 3+ WR sets after ranking first in the category last season (94%), as well as second in 4+ WR sets (17%). Buffalo had not ranked better than 10th in 3+ WR sets since 2014, but Daboll's offenses have checked in at 80% or higher each of his past three seasons calling plays.

Fantasy spin: Buffalo did little to address the tight end position during the offseason, so it's safe to expect a heavy dose of Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis and newcomer Emmanuel Sanders (who is replacing John Brown) in 2021. Diggs and Beasley were both top-30 fantasy WRs last season and second-year Gabriel Davis has an excellent path to joining that mix. He'll just need to fend off 34-year-old Sanders for clear No. 3 duties.

2. Cincinnati Bengals
HC: Zac Taylor*, OC: Brian Callahan
Projected 3+ WR sets: 87%

In Taylor's two seasons as head coach, the Bengals ranked fifth (84%) in 2019 and third (88%) in 2020 in 3+ WR sets. Last season, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green all finished top-30 among wide receivers in targets.

Fantasy spin: Green is gone, but Cincinnati made it clear that they'll remain heavy on '11' personnel when they spent the fifth-overall pick of the draft on Ja'Marr Chase. The LSU product joins Higgins and slot man Boyd to form one of the league's best WR trios. The three will be on the field together on most plays and all are potential weekly fantasy starters. The return of TE C.J. Uzomah from a torn Achilles is the only reason the number isn't even higher.

3. Dallas Cowboys
HC: Mike McCarthy, OC: Kellen Moore*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 85%

McCarthy's past eight offenses have finished at or above 80% in 3+ WR sets. Those eight averaged 86%, which is exactly where Dallas finished in 2020. The Cowboys ranked sixth in the category and only Jacksonville used the '11' personnel package more often (82%).

Fantasy spin: All three of Amari Cooper (15th), CeeDee Lamb (22nd) and Michael Gallup (38th) were fantasy relevant in 2020 and that was with Dak Prescott missing roughly one-third of the season. The elite trio returns in 2021 and will rarely leave the field in Dallas' fast-moving, high-volume pass offense. Blake Jarwin's return from injury could lead to more offensive creativity, but Dallas is still sure to rank among the league leaders in '11'.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers
HC: Mike Tomlin, OC: Matt Canada*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 85%

The Steelers have finished above league average in 3+ WR sets during 10 of the past 12 seasons and were barely below average during the two exceptions. That includes 90% in 2020, which was second-highest in the NFL. As a result, Pittsburgh was the only team with three top-23 fantasy wide receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster 16th, Diontae Johnson 21st, Chase Claypool 23rd).

Fantasy spin: Pittsburgh replaced Randy Fichtner with Matt Canada, but even after scheme adjustments, it's hard to imagine Smith-Schuster, Johnson and/or Claypool (not to mention WR4 James Washington) leaving the field for rookie TE Pat Freiermuth on a majority of plays. Ben Roethlisberger has made a habit of supporting three fantasy relevant WRs and he's a good bet to do it again in 2021.

5. Los Angeles Rams
HC: Sean McVay*, OC: Kevin O'Connell
Projected 3+ WR sets: 81%

The Rams had 3+ WRs on the field for 79% of plays last season, which was 10th highest in the NFL, but also the lowest ever for an offense in which McVay called the plays (his previous low was 82% in 2016). In fact, the Rams had posted rates of 92%, 97% and 86% during McVay's first three seasons as head coach.

Fantasy spin: TE Gerald Everett and WR Josh Reynolds are out, with rookie TE Jacob Harris and WRs DeSean Jackson and rookie Tutu Atwell in. The net change here is likely to mean more wide receiver usage in 2021 and perhaps a return to where McVay was in a year's past. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are safe weekly fantasy starters, whereas 2020 second-round pick Van Jefferson, Jackson and Atwell will compete for No. 3 duties. If one of the three locks down the gig, there is certainly a path to WR3/flex numbers with Matthew Stafford in the fold. Jefferson is the most interesting late-round flier.

6. Washington Football Team
HC: Ron Rivera, OC: Scott Turner*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 81%

Turner was well above average in 3+ WR sets in his brief time as Carolina's OC in 2019 (83%) and settled in at 78% (12th highest in the NFL) in Washington last season. Rivera's Carolina offenses rarely used 3+ WR sets during the Cam Newton era, but his past three teams have been at 76% or higher.

Fantasy spin: Washington was above average in 3+ WR sets last season despite major depth issues at the position behind Terry McLaurin, so the offseason additions of Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and third-round pick Dyami Brown (not to mention weak TE depth) figures to lead to an even higher number in 2021. McLaurin and Samuel are starting options in fantasy, but this scheme opens the door for whoever wins the No. 3 job (likely Humphries or Brown) to surprise in fantasy. Consider either one for a late pick in deep leagues.

7. New York Jets
HC: Robert Saleh, OC: Mike LaFleur*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 80%

This one is tricky. Saleh and LaFleur come from a Kyle Shanahan coaching tree that relied very little on 3+ WR sets, but the Jets invested in Corey Davis and Keelan Cole during free agency, Elijah Moore in the second round of April's draft and kept Jamison Crowder around (not to mention 2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims).

Fantasy spin: When the Jets pass the ball, a trio of their strong WR core will surely be on the field over the likes of reserve TEs Ryan Griffin and Tyler Kroft. It's hard to imagine more than two of them settling in as consistent fantasy options in an offense with a rookie QB, but the good news is that none of them are particularly expensive in fantasy drafts. There will be plenty of WR targets to go around, so late fliers on any of the five receivers is justifiable.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars
HC: Urban Meyer, OC: Darrell Bevell*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 80%

Meyer is a rookie NFL coach and his influence will certainly be felt, but it's experienced NFL OC Bevell who will call the plays. Bevell has been slightly or moderately above average in 3+ WR sets in seven straight seasons as an OC. In fact, each of his past six offenses have been in the 74% to 79% range (his Lions were at 79% in 2020).

Fantasy spin: Upon Meyer's arrival, Jacksonville invested the bare minimum in the tight end position (James O'Shaughnessy is atop the depth chart), but quite a bit at wide receiver (Marvin Jones Jr., Phillip Dorsett, Jamal Agnew, among others). Jones joins DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. to form a good trio with the potential to be great and it's hard to imagine any of the three sitting out in favor of reserve TEs Chris Manhertz or Ben Ellefson when the team is passing. If Trevor Lawrence is solid, Chark, Shenault and Jones (none of who are overly pricey in fantasy drafts) can all pay off their ADPs.

9. Arizona Cardinals
HC: Kliff Kingsbury*, OC: Kliff Kingsbury
Projected 3+ WR sets: 79%

Arizona ranked seventh in the NFL in 3+ WR sets in Kingsbury's first season with the team in 2019 (81%), but fell to 14th (77%) in 2020. The team also used a lot less 4+ WR sets (from 42% to 27%), though their 2020 rate still led the NFL.

Fantasy spin: Pass-catching TE Dan Arnold departed and was not replaced during the offseason, whereas Arizona improved its wide receiver depth by signing A.J. Green (a de facto Larry Fitzgerald replacement) and drafting Ronald Moore in the second round. Hopkins and Green are likely to work as the team's clear one-two punch, though the scheme very well could allow Moore to leap onto the fantasy radar early on in his career. Most drafters are focused on other young receivers, but Moore shouldn't be overlooked in the late rounds.

10. Indianapolis Colts
HC: Frank Reich*, OC: Marcus Brady
Projected 3+ WR sets: 79%

Reich's offense finished below average in 3+ WR sets in each of his first two seasons with the Colts (74%, 68%), but spiked to 83% (seventh) in 2020. The Colts rolled out the '11' package on 83% of plays last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL.

Fantasy spin: Brady is in and Nick Sirianni out as OC, but this is still Reich's offense, so we shouldn't expect any drastic changes. The Colts failed to improve their short-term TE situation during the offseason, but will be in good (perhaps great) shape at WR if Michael Pittman Jr. takes a step forward and Parris Campbell stays healthy alongside 31-year-old T.Y. Hilton. Reich's scheme adjustment last season is good news for the snap counts of Pittman and Campbell and increases their opportunity for a 2021 breakout. Pittman is a bit pricey, but Campbell has the look of an excellent late-round pick.



Mar 6, 2018
11. Miami Dolphins
HC: Brian Flores, Co-OCs: Eric Studesville*/George Godsey*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 79%

If you come across personnel usage data this offseason, you'll likely notice that Miami ranked dead last (by far) in 3+ WR sets last season. This is extremely misleading, as all or most are counting Lynn Bowden Jr. and Malcolm Perry as running backs despite the fact that the duo combined to align in the backfield on only 26 (6%) of 470 snaps. Fixing that error boosts Miami to an above average finish in the category and, if you also consider that Mike Gesicki is essentially a wideout (he aligned at WR on 80% of his snaps in 2020), it's clear that the team was extremely reliant on the position.

WR-friendly OC Chan Gailey is out, but Godsey was heavy on 3+ WR packages in two seasons as an OC in 2015 (77%) and 2016 (76%). Studesville was an interim head coach for a few weeks back in 2010 and was also heavy in the department (71%, which was way above the 60% league average back then). It's undetermined who will call plays as of June.

Fantasy spin: Miami's coordinator change adds uncertainty to the situation, but the team's on-field offseason personnel decisions paint a pretty clear picture: more WR usage is on the way. Miami signed Will Fuller V away from Houston and also spent a top-10 pick on Jaylen Waddle. Those two figure to join DeVante Parker as near-every-down players, though Miami also has quality depth with Preston Williams, Bowden, Perry, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Allen Hurns. If second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa makes a second-year leap, Parker, Fuller and Waddle will play enough to warrant weekly starting consideration in fantasy.

12. Detroit Lions
HC: Dan Campbell, OC: Anthony Lynn*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 78%

Each of Lynn's pass three offenses (all while head coach of the Chargers) finished between 78-79% in 3+ WR sets. Campbell was a head coach in 2015 and his offense sat at 78%.

Fantasy spin: Scheme suggests this team will be above average in 3+ WR sets, but a look at the depth chart -- Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Quintez Cephus -- suggests that may not be feasible. Detroit will utilize 35-year-old No. 2 TE Darren Fells and work in some multiple-RB sets with D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, but this is a rebuilding team that will need to throw the ball often. That will mean a lot of wide receivers on the field. The history of Day 3 rookie wide receivers tells us to avoid St. Brown, but the others are on the sleeper radar considering their late-round ADPs.

13. Denver Broncos
HC: Vic Fangio, OC: Pat Shurmur*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 77%

Shurmur took over as OC last season and Denver's usage of 3+ WR sets jumped from 60% (28th) to 76% (17th). That aligns with Shurmur's past, as seven of his past eight offenses have been above average in the category (77% average during the span).

Fantasy spin: Denver is deep at wide receiver with 2020 early-round picks Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, as well as Tim Patrick still in the mix and Courtland Sutton back from last season's torn ACL. That depth combined with Shurmur's history suggests Denver will lean heavily on three of those receivers and Noah Fant in most passing situations. Sutton and Jeudy are fine at their mid-round ADPs, but Hamler (a second-round pick) deserves more late-round love.

14. Kansas City Chiefs
HC: Andy Reid*, OC: Eric Bieniemy
Projected 3+ WR sets: 77%

After six straight seasons below league average in 3+ WR sets (usually well below average), Reid's offense ranked eighth in the category in 2020. Kansas City was at 81%, compared to a 61% average the prior six seasons, including 68% in 2019. The Chiefs' rolled with '11' personnel 81% of the time, which ranked third in the league and is the highest for a Reid offense in at least a decade.

Fantasy spin: Sammy Watkins departed in the offseason and there's chatter that the team will use more '12' personnel (Blake Bell was signed and Noah Gray drafted at tight end). Combine the team's shaky WR personnel with Reid's past and a slight or moderate drop in 3+ WR sets makes sense. Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle are the frontrunners for No. 2 duties and only a clear winner among the group would emerge as a consistent fantasy option.

15. Los Angeles Chargers
HC: Brandon Staley, OC: Joe Lombardi*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 77%

Staley is new in town and comes from Sean McVay's aforementioned 3+ WR-heavy scheme. Lombardi, meanwhile, was very heavy on 3+ WR sets during two previous seasons as an OC (76% in 2014, 81% in 2015).

Fantasy spin: The Chargers were around league average in 3+ WR sets last season and figure to fall in that range again this season after replacing TE Hunter Henry with Jared Cook and third-round pick Tre' McKitty and adding only third-round pick Josh Palmer at wideout. Justin Herbert's progression could launch the team's No. 3 WR to fantasy relevance, but time will tell if Palmer, Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson or someone else will win that gig. For now, the young receivers are only worth a late-round look in deep leagues.

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
HC: Bruce Arians, OC: Byron Leftwich*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 76%

Arians' usage of 3+ WR sets has been as consistent as you'll find, as his past six offenses have all been between 74% and 78%. That includes 77% each of the past two seasons. This projection may seem low for a team with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, but keep in mind that Tampa Bay's rate actually dipped (76%) after Antonio Brown's return in Week 9 last season.

Fantasy spin: Tampa Bay's elite WR trio guarantees plenty of '11' usage, but the return of O.J. Howard to a TE room that also includes Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate suggests the offense will remain multiple. Expect the tight ends to struggle for TE1 production as Brady keeps Evans, Godwin and Brown afloat as weekly fantasy starters.

17. Chicago Bears
HC: Matt Nagy*, OC: Bill Lazor
Projected 3+ WR sets: 76%

Nagy's offense went from well below average in 3+ WR sets back in 2018 (67%) to well above average in both 2019 (81%) and 2020 (77%).

Fantasy spin: Cole Kmet took over as Chicago's every-down TE last season, leaving Jimmy Graham in a situational role. Graham's contract, however, suggests he won't be a complete non factor in 2021. With Chicago lacking quality WR depth, a dip in 3+ WR usage seems likely. Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney's snaps are safe, but slot man Anthony Miller's days as a worthwhile late-round sleeper are over.

18. New York Giants
HC: Joe Judge, OC: Jason Garrett*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 75%

Garrett has called the plays for five seasons over the past 12 years and four of those units ranked well below average in 3+ WR sets. That includes the 2020 season, which was his first with the Giants. New York's 66% rate ranked 23rd, as they made heavy use of No. 2 TE Kaden Smith throughout the season (28.6 snaps per game). It's worth noting that Dallas ranked above average in 3+ WR sets during each of Garrett's final five seasons with the team, though he was not calling plays during the stretch.

Fantasy spin: We should expect a lot of different looks from New York this season, as they improved at wide receivers (Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, John Ross), added Kyle Rudolph at tight end and utilize a fullback (Elijhaa Penny). It's easy to assume three of Golladay, Toney, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton will be on the field at all times, but the roster build and Garrett's history suggest that won't be the case. Expectations should be kept in check for the team's receivers not named Golladay.

19. Seattle Seahawks
HC: Pete Carroll, OC: Shane Waldron*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 75%

Seattle checked in above average in 3+ WR sets in seven straight seasons (76% average) before falling just below average (71%) in 2020. Of course, an offensive adjustment is expected after the team replaced Brian Schottenheimer with WR-friendly Sean McVay protégé Waldron during the offseason.

Fantasy spin: Seattle replaced retired TE Greg Olsen with Gerald Everett (who worked with Waldron in Los Angeles), but also spent a second-round pick on D'Wayne Eskridge during the offseason. The improved WR depth, combined with Waldon's past employer and Carroll's history suggests we'll see more '11' personnel this season. Eskridge is an underrated late-round pick, especially considering that Freddie Swain and Penny Hart are among his toughest competition for No. 3 duties.

20. Carolina Panthers
HC: Matt Rhule, OC: Joe Brady*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 74%

The Panthers were barely above league average (76%) in 3+ WR sets in 2020, which was Rhule and Brady's first season with the team. Despite that fact, Carolina was one of only three teams to support three top-25 fantasy WRs (Robby Anderson 19th, DJ Moore 24th, Curtis Samuel 25th).

Fantasy spin: Carolina took a short-term hit at wide receiver with Samuel departing and being replaced by rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. and journeyman David Moore. The Panthers also upgraded at tight end by signing receiving-specialist Dan Arnold. A slight drop in '11' personnel is likely and, especially with the team's QB change, it's unlikely that Carolina will support three fantasy relevant WRs again this season. Arnold, meanwhile, is a fantasy sleeper, as he's a candidate to take over a big share of the 417 routes run by Ian Thomas last season (10th most among tight ends).



Mar 6, 2018
21. Houston Texans
HC: David Culley, OC: Tim Kelly*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 73%

Houston changed its head coach, but not its offensive playcaller during the offseason. Kelly's offense ranked well below average in 3+ WR sets in 2019 (64%), but leapt to 74% (ranked 19th) in 2020. Culley is not calling the plays, but he's an offensive coach with a mixed background of a lot of 3+ WR sets in Philadelphia, but few with Kansas City, Buffalo and Baltimore. Fantasy spin: Houston's offseason investments included a ton of journeymen running backs and wide receivers, as well as mid-round picks WR Nico Collins and TE Brevin Jordan. The likes of Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb have secure roles, but depth is severely lacking, which means a mix of multiple personnel packages is very likely. Collins -- a third-round pick -- is a justifiable late-round pick in deep leagues, but he won't be very appealing of Deshaun Watson doesn't play.

22. Philadelphia Eagles
HC: Nick Sirianni*, OC: Shane Steichen
Projected 3+ WR sets: 73%

The Eagles have ranked outside the top 20 in 3+ WR sets each of the past five seasons and it's possible that doesn't change with Sirianni and Steichen calling the shots. Sirianni checked in below average in the category in his first two seasons with the Colts (74%, 68%), but spiked to 83% (seventh) in 2020. Steichen was at 80% and 78% during the 2019-20 seasons as the Chargers OC.

Fantasy spin: The Eagles have spent their past two first-round picks on wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor and are inexplicably still in rough shape in terms of depth at the position. With that in mind, we should expect plenty of '12' personnel this season as long as Zach Ertz remains on the roster. If Ertz is traded or released, the Eagles figure to be much higher on this list, though likely not enough for someone like Greg Ward Jr. or Travis Fulgham to produce consistent flex value.

23. Baltimore Ravens
HC: John Harbaugh, OC: Greg Roman*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 68%

The Ravens made the jump from 51% in 2019 to 66% in 2020 and the offseason additions of Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman -- not to mention more of a commitment to the pass -- suggests the team's usage of 3+ WR sets could be even higher in 2021. That said, Roman has a long history of devaluing wide receivers and Baltimore still uses a fullback on the regular (2+ RBs on 24% of pass plays in 2020 - third highest) and drafted FB Ben Mason in the fifth round of April's draft.

Fantasy spin: In seven full seasons as a playcaller, Roman's WR units have ranked 29th, 23rd, 32nd, 13th, 21st, 32nd and 31st in fantasy points. The latter two cover his two seasons in Baltimore. Even if Baltimore ramps up its pass offense as expected, this is still a run-first, multiple scheme that will make heavy use of Lamar Jackson's legs. The likes of Bateman and Watkins will have their hands full finding a path to consistent flex value with Marquise Brown also soaking up targets.

24. Tennessee Titans
HC: Mike Vrabel, OC: Todd Downing*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 68%

Tennessee finished 23rd in 3+ WR sets in both of Vrabel's first two seasons as head coach (71% in 2018, 68% in 2019) before plummeting to 30th (54%) in 2020. Some (all?) of the latter was personnel related, as Tennessee was at 69% (23rd again!) during the five games No. 3/slot WR Adam Humphries played, but plummeted to 45% (second lowest) when he was out/barely played.

Fantasy spin: The Titans' offense will have plenty of new faces this season. OC Arthur Smith, TE Jonnu Smith and WRs Corey Davis and Humphries are all out and all of the most notable additions were wide receivers (Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds and Dez Fitzpatrick). The Anthony Firkser-Geoff Swaim TE duo will get plenty of run and FB Khari Blasingame will get his ~10 snaps per game, but it's fair to expect a bounceback in '11' personnel usage this season. Considering Ryan Tannehill's strong play the past two seasons, it's plausible that Reynolds or Fitzpatrick could sneak onto the deep league fantasy radar, but they're only worth a late lottery ticket.

25. New Orleans Saints
HC: Sean Payton*, OC: Pete Carmichael Jr.
Projected 3+ WR sets: 67%

The Saints have ranked below average in 3+ WR sets in 10 straight seasons, finishing in the 64%-to-68% range six of the past seven seasons. That includes 66% (ranked 24th) in 2020.

Fantasy spin: Drew Brees' retirement could shake things up for this offense, but massive WR depth concerns behind Michael Thomas make a big boost in WR usage unlikely. The best path to finding a WR sleeper here is by monitoring the No. 2 WR battle, with Tre'Quan Smith the favorite over Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway. Speaking of sleepers, there's a good change second-year TE Adam Trautman finishes third on the team in targets behind Thomas and Alvin Kamara this season.

26. Green Bay Packers
HC: Matt LaFleur*, OC: Nathaniel Hackett
Projected 3+ WR sets: 65%

After ranking no lower than eighth in 3+ WR sets during each of the previous 11 seasons, Green Bay has ranked 20th (72%) and 27th (62%) in the category during LaFleur's two campaigns as head coach. A part of the reason for the low numbers is multiple-RB usage, as Green Bay ranked 10th in that department in 2019 and fifth in 2020.

Fantasy spin: Green Bay's biggest offseason addition at wide receiver was third-round wild card Amari Rodgers, so a big boost in 3+ WR sets is unlikely. That's especially the case with 2020 third-round pick FB/TE/H-Back Josiah Deguara back from a torn ACL that limited him to two games. Assuming Aaron Rodgers sticks around, it's possible No. 2 WR Allen Lazard flirts with fantasy relevance behind Davante Adams, but the likes of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Rodgers and Devin Funchess aren't nearly as attractive.

27. Las Vegas Raiders
HC: Jon Gruden*, OC: Greg Olson
Projected 3+ WR sets: 63%

During Gruden's three seasons with the team, the Raiders have ranked 18th (76%), 27th (62%) and, most recently, 29th (60%) in 3+ WR sets. Olson's resume is all over the place in the category, but he's generally leaned away from 3+ WR sets (62% average since 2009).

Fantasy spin: The Raiders did not make any major personnel moves at WR or TE during the offseason, but the former should be better with John Brown in for Nelson Agholor and with Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards entering their second season. Jason Witten's retirement could mean fewer 2-TE sets (he played 387 snaps last season), but that will be offset to some extent by more 2+ RB sets following the signing of Kenyan Drake. Even if Las Vegas uses more '11', the lack of quality WR depth means this group likely won't be overly productive in fantasy. The good news is that none are being selected in the single-digit rounds, so the likes of Ruggs and Brown make for quality late-round fliers.

28. San Francisco 49ers
HC: Kyle Shanahan*, OC: Mike McDaniel
Projected 3+ WR sets: 58%

Shanahan has been calling plays since 2010 and his offense has finished below average in 3+ sets in nine of 11 seasons (61% average). That includes finishes of 32nd, 28th, 31st, 29th and, most recently, 28th over the past five seasons, which includes all four years of his tenure as the 49ers' head coach. Despite the low WR usage, Shanahan has not leaned on heavy TE sets, instead relying on FB Kyle Juszczyk. Shanahan has had multiple backs on the field at least 20% of the time in seven consecutive seasons.

Fantasy spin: Juszczyk is back for his age-30 season and will remain a ~30 snap per game player. That is sure to limit snaps for the team's depth wide receivers, but it's not an over appealing group anyway, with Jalen Hurd, Richie James and Mohamed Sanu among those competing for the No. 3 gig. Expect Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle to soak up nearly two-thirds of the offensive targets.

29. Atlanta Falcons
HC: Arthur Smith*, OC: Dave Ragone
Projected 3+ WR sets: 55%

Smith is the Falcons' new head coach after calling the plays for a Tennessee offense that led the NFL in touchdowns during his two seasons. His offense ranked 23rd in 3+ WR sets in 2019 (68%) before falling to 30th (54%) in 2020. Of course, as noted earlier in the Titans' capsule, the big dip was related to weak WR options after Adam Humphries' injury.

Fantasy spin: Atlanta will almost assuredly rank near the top of the NFL in 2+ TE sets after trading Julio Jones to the Titans. We should expect to see a lot of Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage at wideout, with rookie TE Kyle Pitts playing a de facto WR role and Hayden Hurst (who ran 32 routes per game last season) more of an in-line TE presence. That should be the core group of targets for Matt Ryan, as WR depth is a major concern (Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Frank Darby, Tajae Sharpe). Ridley, Gage and Pitts should be on your radar, but that's likely it for fantasy relevance from the team's non-RBs.

30. New England Patriots
HC: Bill Belichick, OC: Josh McDaniels*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 51%

Belichick's offenses finished below average (usually way below average) in 3+ WR sets in nine consecutive seasons prior to Rob Gronkowski's retirement after the 2018 season. New England has actually been a bit above average the past two seasons (79% in 2019, 74% in 2020) and also ranked first in multiple RB sets in 2020 (30%), though that was highest for a Belichick team since at least 2009.

Fantasy spin: The recent downswing in TE usage is sure to be short lived after New England's offseason additions of TEs Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. We should expect a return to extremely heavy '12' usage in 2021, with both newcomers on the field together on a significant percentage of pass plays. That's especially the case with the team still shaky at WR (Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne top the depth chart). The projection here would be even lower if New England wasn't as keen on multiple RB sets (FB Jakob Johnson played 23 snaps per game last season). It's unlikely that both Henry and Smith will be viable TE1 options (history agrees with this assessment), but they'll see enough work that New England may only support one consistent fantasy starter (Agholor and Meyers are your best bests and available late in drafts).

31. Minnesota Vikings
HC: Mike Zimmer, OC: Klint Kubiak*
Projected 3+ WR sets: 50%

Zimmer's offenses hung around league average in 3+ WR sets during the 2014-18 seasons, but have been way below average the past two years (24% in 2019 with Kevin Stefanski calling plays and 48% in 2020 with Gary Kubiak). Kubiak has generally been well below average in 3+ WR usage and it's reasonable to expect a similar scheme from his son, Klint, who has taken over for dad as the team's playcaller.

Fantasy spin: There is little reason to expect anything other than low usage of 3+ WR sets after Minnesota failed to add an impact No. 3 WR during the offseason (Chad Beebe, Olabisi Johnson and fifth-round rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette are among the top contenders). It's expected that Tyler Conklin will replace Kyle Rudolph as Irv Smith Jr.'s running mate at tight end and we'll also see plenty of FB CJ Ham (26 snaps per game last season). It's hard to imagine anyone other than Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Smith providing consistent fantasy production among the team's non-RBs this season.

32. Cleveland Browns
HC: Kevin Stefanski*, OC: Alex Van Pelt
Projected 3+ WR sets: 48%

No one dislikes using his third WR more than Kevin Stefanski. The second-year head coach easily ranked dead last in 3+ WR sets as Minnesota's OC in 2019 (24%) and also finished dead last as Cleveland's head coach and playcaller in 2020 (45%). Sure, Odell Beckham Jr. missed over half the season, but Cleveland was also last in 3+ WR sets during the six weeks Beckham played in full (48%).

Fantasy spin: Beckham and Jarvis Landry are back, Rashard Higgins showed well in place of Beckham down the stretch last season and Cleveland spent a third-round pick on Anthony Schwartz. That's a lot more depth that Stefanski had in the past, but (a) the team is still deep at tight end with Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku and (b) he'll still lean on multiple-RB sets with some combination of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and FB Andy Janovich. This scheme limits fantasy upside from non-RBs and so it's hard to justify the likes of Higgins or Schwartz in the later rounds.



Mar 6, 2018

Ranking the NFL's top 10 running backs for 2021: Execs, coaches, players make their picks​


Who's the NFL's best running back? Wide receiver? Cornerback? What about the second-best defensive tackle -- after Aaron Donald? To preview the 2021 NFL season, we set out to answer those questions and much more.

We surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rushers to interior offensive linemen and all the way through tight ends. This is the second edition of these rankings, and several players moved up or dropped from last year's lists.

Here's how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. We had several ties, so we broke them by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy -- even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2021. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who's the best today? Pretty simple.

We'll roll out a position per day over the next 11 days. Here's the schedule:

Paying running backs is supposed to be a gamble. We've heard for years about the position's short shelf life and cautionary tales of declining play after cashing out.

This year's top-10 running back class defies that logic. Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook signed massive deals worth more than $180 million in total, and they rewarded that faith with stellar production in 2020. They surpassed 5,700 yards as a trio, along with 55 total touchdowns and a collective vault up this year's rankings.

Meanwhile, last year's top three battled injuries and production drop-offs, while talented backs out of Green Bay and Indianapolis stated their cases.

Here, league execs, coaches and players try to separate fact from fiction, resulting in a few surprises along the way. Let's start with the No. 1 back:


1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 27 | Last year's ranking: 5

It's tough to vote against a member of the 2,000-yard club. Henry became the eighth NFL player to crack that threshold thanks to a massive workload (378 carries) and 34 broken tackles, tops in the league.

Some coaches and scouts prefer versatility in the passing game, which isn't Henry's strength. He has never caught more than 20 passes in a season. But Henry is so overwhelming as a pure runner -- with an offense built around his every move -- that he didn't slip past sixth on any ballot.

His 1,073 yards after contact topped all tailbacks by more than 300 yards.

"If you're comfortable staying patient with 2- and 3-yard gains in the first half, knowing those same runs will turn into 8-yard runs in the second half, then he's by far the best player at this position," an NFC offensive coach said.

An NFC scout added: "He wears your ass out. He's a train."

And a stat to hop aboard: Henry averages 10.87 mph when crossing the line of scrimmage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. No other running back with 150-plus carries surpassed that (though quarterback Lamar Jackson did, at 13.45). Henry's 80% third-down conversion rate is also absurd.

One thing to watch with Henry this season is his workload. Since 2018 and including the playoffs, Henry has put up 997 carries, 102 more than the next-highest back (Ezekiel Elliott). Will that workload catch up to him?


2. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 8
Age: 25 | Last year's ranking: 4

Last summer, enough evaluators preferred Kamara to Christian McCaffrey to prompt a double take, though McCaffrey finished two spots ahead of the Saints tailback, at No. 2.

A year later, Kamara has surpassed McCaffrey convincingly, with several first-place votes and a healthy push of Henry for the top spot.

"His balance is incredible. One of the smoothest players in the league, but he also plays with power," an NFC exec said.

It's wild that the league's second-best rusher doesn't own a 1,000-yard-rushing season over a four-year career. But Kamara simply needs the ball more than he needs a rushing title. He is one of three NFL players with at least 80 receptions in his first four seasons in the NFL, joining two receivers -- teammate Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry -- in the exclusive club. His 711 yards after the catch led all NFL players.

Kamara's 9.1 yards per catch was the most among running backs with at least 50 targets (and higher than receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster), and his 11.7 rushes per touchdown also led all tailbacks.

"If I was building a team, he would be my running back," a high-ranking NFL exec said. "He's the perfect modern back."


3. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 25 | Last year's ranking: 6

Cook followed a contract extension with his best season yet, posting career highs in attempts (312), rushing yards (1,557), rushing touchdowns (16) and yards per carry (5.0).

He did all this despite missing two games. A full season would have pushed him closer to an 1,800-yard clip.

"I always look for versatility -- catch the ball out of the backfield, run outside the tackles and display explosive traits," said an AFC exec who voted Cook at No. 1. "Cook exhibits that better than anyone else."

Cook's 91 rushing first downs are second to Henry's 98 despite 66 fewer carries (378 to 312). He has caught at least 40 passes in each of the past three years and is a one-cut dynamo in the red zone, producing 222 yards on 58 carries inside the 20, highest among backs with more than 30 red zone attempts.


4. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 8
Age: 25 | Last year's ranking: 7

After he ranked seventh last year, Chubb's dominance was on full display during Cleveland's playoff run, helping him jump three spots. Evaluators wanted to see more and got it, with Chubb averaging 5.6 yards per carry for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games.

"Best pure runner in football," an NFC exec said. "I'd take him over Henry because he's a little more explosive."

Chubb is good for a 20-plus-yard run nearly every week, with 12 such runs on 190 attempts, or once every 15.8 runs. Henry averaged 20-plus yards on every 23.6 carries.

The Browns lined up and gave Chubb the ball when they wanted to reach the end zone. Chubb's 15.8 rushes per touchdown led the league among volume backs.


5. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 11
Age: 25 | Last year's ranking: 2

McCaffrey was never going to fall far. He's just 18 months removed from becoming the third tailback ever to post 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

"He can do it all," an AFC personnel evaluator said. "Complete back. Footwork and lateral quickness, there's probably nobody better."

But missing 13 games last season with a high-ankle sprain and a shoulder injury affected his standing. Some evaluators aren't quite sure what to expect in 2021.

"If you value durability as far as criteria, then I'm not sure he's going to hold up," an NFL offensive coach said. "Love the player, but at that size (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) with the injuries, I'm just not sure."

Supporters expect McCaffrey to anchor the Panthers' offense as an elite slot receiver and big-play machine for new quarterback Sam Darnold. More explosive plays will be the answer. None of McCaffrey's 59 rushes last season went for more than 15 yards.


6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 12
Age: 24 | Last year's ranking: 1

Barkley broke a tie with McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott for last year's top spot because he had the most No. 1 votes by a wide margin.

He still found his way atop a few ballots this year, but his recovery from a torn ACL is a concern. Having a big 2021 is hardly a slam dunk, at least early on, as running backs often need time to regain explosion. And Barkley wasn't impressive in limited action in 2020, with 34 yards on 19 carries and an average of 0.84 yards per rush after first contact, worst among the top 10 on this list.

He is still an eye-test guy for many: Watch him play, how defenses assign four or five defenders to his every move, and you'll understand.

"Still has the rare combination of speed and explosion and size and elusiveness," an AFC scout said. "He's kind of been a victim of a bad supporting cast. He does things as well or better than anybody on the list."

The Giants added a few offensive playmakers this offseason, which should help take some of the focus off Barkley.


7. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 12
Age: 25 | Last year's ranking: 3

Some teams still view Elliott as the most natural downhill rusher in the game because of his combination of speed, power and balance.

"They need to give Zeke some of Dak's money," an AFC defensive coach said. "He scares you the most on that offense."

Why Elliott fell in this year's rankings is easy to answer: lack of juice. He has seven rushes of 20-plus yards since 2019 and zero runs of more than 40. That's the worst explosive-play production on this list. Some personnel people believe Elliott appears less explosive on film since signing his $75 million extension before the 2019 season.

"Doesn't look the same, and he fumbles too much," an NFC offensive coach said.

Elliott has fumbled five or more times in three of his five NFL seasons.

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott told The Dallas Morning News that Elliott is in "the best shape of his life" entering 2021, so perhaps the talented back will return to his form from 2016-18, when he had a combined 30 rushes of 20-plus yards.


8. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: 13
Age: 26 | Last year's ranking: Honorable mention

Jones narrowly missed the list last year but qualified in convincing fashion this year, earning a top-10 vote on nearly every ballot.

He needed only 201 carries to produce 1,104 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, thanks in part to a stellar 2.44 yards per rush after first contact. Jones also produced as a pass-catcher with 47 receptions for 355 yards.

"A little bit a product of the [Green Bay] scheme but has big-play ability," an NFC exec said. "Can make plays on the perimeter and does a nice job on screen game. Has the juice to alter games."

Jones is one of the best stories of the group, a former fifth-round pick who mushroomed from third-stringer to Pro Bowler on a $48 million contract.


9. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 24 | Last year's ranking: 8

Mixon's staying power was one of the more surprising developments at the position. He was a fixture on top-10 ballots despite playing six games last season and averaging a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry.

But those were six more games in which to view Mixon as an all-around back with ideal size (6-1, 220 pounds) and the ability to run through or past defenders.

"The more teams that play against him, the more respect he gets," an NFC offensive coach said. "He has all the tools to be really good. He just plays on a bad team, and that's probably holding him back. I'm curious if the scheme, once they solidify that line a little more, will use him in more effective ways."


10. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 23 | Last year's ranking: 9

Jacobs and Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor were locked into a 10th-place tie, with Jacobs earning a slight edge after a series of tiebreaker votes.

Taylor's explosion is undeniable. He posted seven runs of 20-plus yards, including three of more than 40, and his maximum speed while crossing the line of scrimmage was 20.97 mph, second to Philadelphia's Miles Sanders (21.09).

Meanwhile, Jacobs, despite a sluggish 3.9 yards per carry in Year 2, is a determined back, with 479 rushing yards after contact last year (sixth in the NFL). And Jacobs has 46 broken tackles since 2019, ranking no lower than eighth in either season.

One AFC exec said Jacobs is more decisive between the tackles than Taylor at this point, though Taylor is coming.

"Jacobs is a load," the exec said. "Taylor is still learning, but he'll be there soon."


Honorable mention​

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts: "He'll be a top-5 back by the end of the season. Watch him in the second half of last year. He's coming." -- AFC scout

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns: "He might be the best overall back in Cleveland. He's a combination of [Dalvin] Cook and [Derrick] Henry." -- AFC exec

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs: "He was my favorite back in the draft last year -- strong and powerful but has lateral movement. Great fit with Andy Reid." -- NFC exec

Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles: "He's underrated. In a better scheme for backs, he'd be a prominent guy. Great burst." -- AFC defensive coach



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: NFC North division storylines to watch​



Key fantasy offseason movement​

--Two teams drastically changed their quarterback situations, while a third team is in some degree of limbo. The Chicago Bears said goodbye to the erratic Mitchell Trubisky, once the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft. The time had clearly come. Chicago signed stopgap Andy Dalton to replace him, with former Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles still around and ... then they traded up for Ohio State star Justin Fields in the draft? Awkward! Perhaps Fields starts in Week 1, perhaps not, but he is the future. One of Dalton or Foles may be gone before September.

--Then there are the Detroit Lions, sans a playoff win since the Harry S. Truman administration. OK, so that is some hyperbole, but it was the 1991 season and that still is a long time ago. Matthew Stafford, winless in three career playoff games, went to the Los Angeles Rams while Jared Goff, who played in a Super Bowl quite recently, comes aboard along with several first-round picks. Good for the rebuilding Lions, really. They signed a very enthusiastic new coach in Dan Campbell, let free agent Kenny Golladay walk and they welcome a new error. Um, a new era.

--The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were rather quiet in their moves this offseason, though we should point out for the Packers, the offseason may be far from over.

Something to prove​

--Running backs are the fantasy calling card of this division, as the Vikings' Dalvin Cook, Bears' David Montgomery and Packers' Aaron Jones each finished among the top five scoring running backs in ESPN standard PPR leagues. The starter missing from the group is Lions talent D'Andre Swift, and many believe he crashes that high-scoring party this season. Perhaps Cook needs to prove durable enough to play every week, Montgomery that he can thrive again as a pass catcher with Tarik Cohen returning and Jones that he deserves his big contract and can hold off AJ Dillon. Swift just needs to play.

--As for the wide receivers, the Packers and Bears employ legitimate stars in Davante Adams and Allen Robinson II, respectively, and entering last season the Vikings' Adam Thielen was right with them for value. Now Thielen may slide from sure-fire WR2 contention on draft day. Thielen had no problem catching Kirk Cousins touchdown passes in 2020 (14 of them), thanks to myriad red zone targets, but rookie Justin Jefferson otherwise overshadowed him in fantasy.

--Then there are the Lions, who replaced Golladay (now with the New York Giants) with journeymen Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman. Yep, those veterans top the wide receiver depth chart, along with Quintez Cephus and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. Goff has much to prove, but unless tight end T.J. Hockenson turns into Travis Kelce, it may be tough! Buoyed by an improved offensive line (Oregon's Penei Sewell landed here), the Lions may simply have Goff hand the football off 50 times per game, and it may work.

Whose fantasy stock may fluctuate?​

--If one is drafting today, does one feel confident that defending league MVP Aaron Rodgers will play this fall? The disgruntled Rodgers has made his displeasure for the Packers organization quite clear this offseason, leaving the door open for potentially demanding a trade or even walking away from the sport all together. Perhaps he returns and wins another MVP award. Should fantasy managers go for it with a fantasy star like Rodgers among the top 10 quarterbacks on draft day or play it safer with someone such as the competent Stafford? Inexperienced Jordan Love, who did nothing wrong when the Packers controversially chose him in the first round of 2020, could become relevant quickly.

--If Rodgers is not starting Week 1 for the Packers, chances are fantasy managers may cool on making Adams, who led wide receivers in PPR scoring in 2020, among the top receivers in drafts. Perhaps similarly, one could certainly argue the Bears' Robinson would initially be better off with a veteran passer, but Robinson has overcome shoddy quarterback play (hello Blake Bortles) his entire career, so it should not matter much. Neither the Packers nor Bears boast an obvious second wide receiver for fantasy managers to covet, but someone such as Green Bay rookie Amari Rodgers (no relation) or rejuvenated new Bear Marquise Goodwin may emerge when coaches and personnel feed reporters all the good summer information.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: AFC North division storylines to watch​


AFC North​

Key fantasy offseason movement​

--This seems the quietest division for new faces relevant to most fantasy managers, perhaps not too surprising since three of the teams won 11 or more games, and the fourth already has key offensive players in place. The Pittsburgh Steelers. who found a way to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger despite a precarious cap situation that cost them several offensive linemen, did utilize a first-round choice on Alabama running back Najee Harris, saying farewell to James Conner. Blessed with likely opportunity, Harris figures to be the first rookie chosen in most fantasy leagues.

--Meanwhile, the rival Baltimore Ravens found their new right tackle in longtime Steelers stalwart Alejandro Villanueva, also signed Kevin Zeitler to handle guard and figure to again rely heavily on an effective running game. Then again, the Ravens added a few weapons for Lamar Jackson to target in ever-tantalizing Sammy Watkins and they chose Minnesota's Rashod Bateman in the first round. The depth may affect targets for Marquise Brown but then again, are you really still depending on Brown in fantasy?

Something to prove​

--The Cleveland Browns, coming off their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, concentrated on the defensive side of the football, which could be relevant in fantasy. The Browns D/ST was not among the top fantasy options in 2020. Still, few quarterbacks for winning teams -- if any -- have more to prove than Baker Mayfield, as the Browns could look to upgrade after this season. Mayfield was not much of a fantasy asset in 2020, despite cutting down on his many turnovers, as running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the offensive stars here.

--The other Ohio quarterback is the Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Burrow, and his rookie season ended in Week 11 after he tore multiple ligaments in his left knee. Burrow averaged 17.4 PPR points per game, 16th among those who reached 2,500 passing yards, and well ahead of Mayfield, Matthew Stafford and plenty of others that may have received more attention. The Bengals, who last won a playoff game more than 30 years ago, may struggle to protect Burrow sufficiently, but he surely has skill-position weapons around him, including former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase, who the team selected fifth in the draft this summer. Burrow expects to be ready to start in Week 1.

--Speaking of the Bengals, running back Joe Mixon played in only six games last season after suffering a foot injury, and he averaged a mere 3.6 yards per rush. Fantasy managers viewed Mixon as a RB1 entering 2020, and for good reason, as he played to that level the prior two seasons. They may need some convincing that he will return to that lofty status.

Whose fantasy stock may fluctuate?​

--Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tore his knee in his seventh game last season, and it is notable that statistically he was far from a WR2 option to start with. Yes, Beckham has much to prove and perhaps his returning to a Pro Bowl level from his New York Giants days is impossible in a run-first offense, but fantasy managers continue to fool themselves into believing he will do so. Watch Beckham say all the right things about his recovery and move up draft boards in August, even with little viable reason to expect WR2 performance.

--The rookie Chase joins a Bengals wide receiver crew that featured a pair of WR3 options in Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. What should the order be for this trio on fantasy draft day? Well, at least Chase figures to go third, but as a decorated college option reunited with his college quarterback, chances are he will rise in drafts throughout August. Most relevant rookies do.

--And finally, not that everyone expected Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to follow up his MVP season with another ... but myriad fantasy managers likely did, thus his aggressive ADP. Jackson ended up the No. 10 fantasy quarterback and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is certainly possible he moves up in drafts merely because we have seen his upside, and it was indeed awesome. It is also just as likely second-year running back J.K. Dobbins rises at a greater rate to become more popular in drafts.



Mar 6, 2018

Fantasy football: Breaking down the most contentious backfield battles​


In 2020, running back Josh Jacobs logged 273 carries and scored 12 touchdowns in Jon Gruden's run-heavy system. But with the addition of veteran Kenyan Drake, who also brings receiving upside to the Las Vegas backfield, there is now more competition for touches in the Raiders running back room.

Today, let's dive deeper into what to expect with the Raiders and other backfield battles that carry fantasy impact heading into NFL training camps, including the players I would target target in my leagues this season.

Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs vs. Kenyan Drake

The arrival of Drake in Vegas is reflected by Jacobs' current ADP, which sits at RB18. There's competition for touches here, a year after Jacobs' yards per carry dropped from 4.8 in 2019 to 3.9 last season. However, the running back roles in Gruden's offense this year are key. Remember, Drake caught 85 of 123 targets in the 2017-18 seasons with Miami. He can threaten defenses as a pass game back.

Yes, the newly signed free agent will get carries too, which will cut into Jacob's overall volume and scoring totals. We know that. But for an offense that ranked 8th in rush rate last season (41.7%) and 9th in red zone drives (59), Jacobs is still an easy fit for a head coach that wants to run the ball -- which plays to the his downhill juice and short-area speed. Given that current ADP, I'm going to target Jacobs as a mid-to-low tier RB2, with Drake tagged as a Flex option in deeper PPR leagues.

San Francisco 49ers
Raheem Mostert
vs. Trey Sermon

In a crowded running back room -- which also features Jeff Wilson, Wayne Gallman and sixth round pick Elijah Mitchell -- Mostert should be viewed as a Flex option with RB2 upside in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Think about this: since 2017, when Shanahan took over as the head coach in San Francisco, the 49ers have ranked 4th in fantasy running back points -- while also leading the NFL with an average of 2.82 yards per carry before first contact during that stretch, according to ESPN researcher Kyle Soppe. Shanahan will use formation, alignment and pre/post-snap movement to scheme up open daylight for runners in his system.

But let's focus on Sermon too, who averaged 3.64 yards per carry after first contact last season at Ohio State. He has the traits of a professional runner -- contact balance, vision, pad level -- to ascend quickly on the 49ers depth chart, in addition to his ability to produce as a receiver on swings and screens. Plus, with a current ADP of RB41, the rookie should be targeted in all scoring formats as a late round sleeper in one of the NFL's best run game offenses.

Denver Broncos
Melvin Gordon III vs. Javonte Williams

Gordon still has that downhill ability in a Denver offense that ranked 7th in running back yards per carry before first contact last season (2.85). However, we are also talking about a veteran back who just passed the 1,500 career touch mark and saw his yards per carry after first contact drop to 1.78 over the last two seasons. And, based on the tape, I see a running back who isn't as explosive at this stage of his career. That's why I'm more focused on Williams in re-draft leagues. The rookie averaged 4.61 yards after first contact in his final season at North Carolina. He's a downhill hammer, with the power to run through defenders and the open field juice/shake to create big plays.

Yes, Gordon has value as a mid-tier Flex option, and he should see pretty consistent volume to start the year. But as this season progresses, I expect Williams -- with a current ADP of RB31 -- to cut into the veteran's touches. Additionally, with the Broncos owning the league's third-friendliest schedule during the ESPN fantasy playoffs, Williams could be in-line to produce RB2 numbers when you need it the most. Target the rookie as a mid-round pick in your drafts.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Leonard Fournette
vs. Ronald Jones II

During last year's playoff run to a Super Bowl title, Fournette held a 64-to-35 post season carry edge over Jones, including 300 yards rushing (compared to Jones' 139) and three rushing scores. However, if we look at the total season, it was Jones who averaged 34.7% more yards per carry than Fournette, despite running behind the same offensive line. Jones also had six games in 2020 with 15-plus carries, compared to only four from Fournette.

While you can point to Fournette's numbers on the playoff stage, plus his current ADP of RB28, to target a Flex for your lineup, I still see more upside in Non-PPR formats with Jones given his rushing traits. There's just more second-level juice on the tape, plus the ability to make defenders miss. Remember, Jones averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2020, while Fournette checked in at 3.8, and has yet to average over 4.35 in a single pro season. Plus, with Jones carrying an ADP of RB35, I think you can get solid value here as a Flex in deeper leagues -- for an explosive Tampa offense that ranked 4th in red zone drives last season.

Arizona Cardinals
Chase Edmonds
vs. James Conner

Before the Cardinals signed Conner in free agency, Edmonds had the look of a possible feature back -- with three down upside -- in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. However, with Conner now in the mix, and expected to see volume, Edmonds should be targeted as a high-end Flex with PPR value. Last season, Edmonds caught 53 passes with four receiving touchdowns. And he will be schemed as a receiving threat in addition to the run game totals he can produce.

Where does that leave Conner? With declining numbers in Pittsburgh, where his fantasy points per touch dropped from 1.05 in '18, 0.98 in '19 and 0.81 in 2020, I'm not sold that the former Steeler can elevate to more than a lower-tier Flex play. However, if he does see consistent, weekly volume in the same role that Drake held for the Cardinals last season, there is some scoring upside here for an Arizona offense that ranked 4th in red zone rush rate at 58.2%.
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