Around the League: Fantasy Fallout

August 11, 2020

Antonio Gibson doubt, Raiders wide receiver depth chart becomes clearer

Every year the fantasy community receives reports out of training camp. Hype builds, doubt creeps in, ADP fluctuates. In years past that always stabilized a bit more when people got to watch the preseason games. We saw how Washington’s Terry McLaurin didn’t play much in the preseason games, showing that the team valued him as a starter after glowing camp reports. News and press conferences will be more valuable than ever without preseason games to add the necessary film, so here are some headlines to be aware of.

Washington RB coach Randy Jordan told ESPN, “it’ll take time for Antonio Gibson to learn protections and to diagnose blitzes.”

Courtesy of Withthefirstpick.com. Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

When the team released presumed starter Derrius Guice, the fantasy world was quick to anoint 2020 third-round pick Antonio Gibson as the next “big thing.” The hype had been building since head coach Ron Rivera compared the Memphis product to Christian McCaffrey after coaching in Carolina for nine years. Rivera also brought offensive coordinator Scott Turner over with him from Carolina, maintaining continuity with a system that frequently used workhorse backs. But Jordan threw some water on that Gibson-hype Twitter fire, and for good reason. Gibson had just 33 collegiate carries, and while he is a talented receiving weapon, it makes sense that he is still raw as a prospect. Dwayne Haskins’ development must be prioritized and whiffs in pass-protection would be unforgivable.

“He is still clay when it comes to running back,” Jordan said.

With that being said, Gibson is still the most valuable piece of this backfield. While a combination of veterans Adrian Peterson and Peyton Barber should still lead the team in carries, Gibson has the most upside as a prospect I loved coming out of college. It’s always great to see players who thrive as a pass-catcher in college, and Gibson has the build to combine that skill set with a heavy workload. However, Jordan’s words should serve as a reminder that Gibson isn’t assured of anything. This was a backfield that provided minimal fantasy value last year, albeit without Gibson. The veterans, and possibly even 2019 fourth-round pick Bryce Love, could all serve a role as Gibson becomes acclimated to the running back position on the NFL level. Make sure to monitor this positional battle as camp progresses.

The Athletic’s Zak Keefer wrote, “Jonathan Taylor expected to share carries with starter Marlon Mack.”

This is a storyline fantasy owners need to keep a close eye on. Indianapolis felt impelled to trade up in the second-round to select the Wisconsin product, making him the No. 2 running back taken in the draft. Given the strength of their offensive line and the regression of Phillip Rivers in 2019, it’s a safe bet that this team will go as far as the run game takes them. Mack should retain most of the carries early in the year with Taylor stepping in at times, but expect a gradual ramp-up in usage for the rookie. Taylor has league-winning upside should Mack find himself out of the picture as one of the most productive backs ever to be drafted (back-to-back seasons of 2,000 yards rushing) but his shortcomings as a receiving weapon will likely keep him from the three-down role owners desire, especially with the presence of Nyheim Hines. 

Raiders third-round rookie Bryan Edwards could start at X receiver, according to USA Today’s Marcus Mosher

Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson also said in a media session that Henry Ruggs III will start in the slot.

For those who are unfamiliar with Edwards, he was touted as a first-round talent out of South Carolina before he broke his foot prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, leading to a draft day slide. His athleticism and ability to win contested catches makes him an ideal fit for this offense, pairing well with speedster rookie Ruggs. 

“Bryan is a very violent route runner,” QB Derek Carr said in a recent media session. “He’s very violent and aggressive in his cuts, in and out of his cuts. … He reminds me of, when the ball is in the air, of Davante (Adams). Great ball skills.”

For context, Adams and Carr were one of the most productive duos in college football history at Fresno State, with Adams racking up over 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns on 233 receptions over their two seasons together. It’s high praise to say the least.

Edwards will start as Carr’s possession receiver with Tyrell Williams playing the Z receiver role. There could be fantasy value here with a talent like Edwards given his touchdown upside, though the Raiders passing game isn’t one to target. He’s worthy of a late-round dart throw to see his role in Week 1. Worst case he is dropped for the inevitable Week 1 waiver group, best case he is the true No. 1 for the Raiders.

Courtesy of raiderswire.usatoday.com. Ruggs was the first receiver taken in the 2020 NFL Draft after two strong seasons at Alabama.

“We’ll start with Ruggs III in the slot and do some things with Ruggs III,” Olson said. “But those guys (Ruggs and Edwards) are very multiple in what they can do and that’s the goal is to be able to move all of them around to different spots; the one, two or three position at the wide receiver.”

Putting Ruggs in the slot was an unexpected but welcome development. Many worried that he would serve as an outside option, mostly taking cornerbacks and safeties out of the play rather than making the play himself. Manufacturing looks for him out of the slot is exactly how a first-round talent should be utilized. Getting him looks in space from the slot and forcing Ruggs to make plays after the catch makes him a far more appealing late-round target than if he simply was lining up outside. It does put a hamper on Hunter Renfrow’s breakout potential following a strong end to the 2019 season, putting him firmly off the radar unless Ruggs abandons the slot.

It never hurts to have a training camp highlight or two, either.

Jets coach Adam Gase told reporters that Le’Veon Bell is “extremely motivated” and is in “phenomenal shape.”

This is a fine example of coach-speak. Every player is “extremely motivated” and they’re all in the best shape of their lives.

With that being said, Bell does look like a TANK.

While the offensive line deserves much of the blame for being the 31st ranked rushing offense in 2019, Bell wasn’t the elusive player we saw in years past. He wore down towards the ends of games, rushing for 2.4 yards-per-carry in the fourth quarter last season. Bell has almost 1,500 carries on his legs, so a boost to his physique could serve him well. Remember that Bell did take a year off in 2018 when he was holding out as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so it’s worth considering that he wasn’t in perfect football shape in 2019. Expect fourth-round rookie La’Mical Perine and veteran Frank Gore to spell Bell, perhaps more than owners would like, but his 2019 finish of RB17 feels like his floor in 2020 with an improved offensive line and locked-in passing work. A 31st ranked offense realistically has nowhere to go but up. Given his RB19 ADP, it’s worth buying the bounce-back. It also helps to see some positive words from Gase after a tumultuous start to their relationship.

Ronald Jones is the “main guy” in the Bucs’ backfield, according to head coach Bruce Arians in a media session with reporters. LeSean McCoy will also “find his niche easily.”

Jones should outperform his RB31 ADP, but will still cede valuable passing work to the other running backs, capping his upside.

Tampa Bay’s backfield suddenly looks a bit crowded with the addition of veteran LeSean McCoy, but Arians maintains that Jones will be the leader. Realistically, this changed nothing. Most have expected Jones to retain his first and second-down role, a valuable one in a high-flying offense. His past failures in pass protection have kept him off the field for third downs, a valuable role given Tom Brady’s dependency on quick targets out of the backfield. Even 2019 undrafted rookie Dare Ogunbowale earned the third-down role over Jones last season. While he has been working on that this past offseason, there’s no reason to expect him to take that role with McCoy, Ogunbowale and Ke’Shawn Vaughn on the team. All three are more reliable blockers than Jones, which Arians always puts a massive emphasis on. Jones will have a stable role, providing mid-to-high-end RB3 value with higher upside should the touchdowns fall the right way. 

Marquise Brown gained 23 pounds this offseason and is up to 180 after playing at 157 as a rookie, per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley

As the conductor of the Hollywood hype train, this is more coal shoveled into the furnace. Brown was underweight coming in and after an injury-ridden rookie year (albeit from a pre-existing college injury), it’s good to see Brown add some much-needed weight. Detractors may worry about a speed-based wide receiver putting on weight, but Brown worked with the Ravens and his own trainers this past offseason to add muscle without losing his speed. 

“I got the Ravens to send me a GPS tracker down to make sure I was still at top speed,” Brown said. “Even my first day running, not even going top speed, I matched my highest speed since I’ve been with the Ravens. I was pleased to hear that. I just had to make sure it was still there.”

With Brown healthy and likely in the best shape of his life he is poised for a big sophomore jump into WR2/WR3 territory. His upside as a playmaker in one of the league’s best offenses will certainly lead to some week-winning games, though it’s important to remember that this is still the same Ravens team that led the league in rushing attempts in 2019, surpassing the San Francisco 49ers by a whopping 98 carries BEFORE adding rookie J.K. Dobbins in the second-round. Brown will have some weeks to forget but his potential in this system that will create plenty of one-on-one opportunities over the top makes him well worth the pick as the WR28 off the board. As I detailed in my “Capture the Flag” article, he’s a perfect fit for what this offense can do.

NBC Sports Peter King reported that veteran Randall Cobb “will be a huge piece of [offensive coordinator Tim] Kelly’s game-planning puzzle this year.”

Cobb has not been fantasy relevant since he was a Green Bay Packer, but he could return to form in an offense that paid him to be a focal point.

I have been beating the drum for Cobb all offseason as a sleeper to target who can lead the Texans in receptions. Veteran Brandin Cooks and the incumbent Will Fuller V are no locks for health or targets as downfield threats that could eat into each other, though Cooks can also serve as a possession receiver. Cobb was given a three-year $27 million contract shortly after the team traded star No. 1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. Given the level of investment the team put into the veteran slot receiver, it is safe to assume that his role is secure. The reason 30-year-old Cobb is going so late in drafts (WR73) is the misconception that he is old and busted, as he has not produced prolific numbers since 2015 when he finished as the WR25. 

But over the past three years, Cobb was “open” (three or more yards of separation) on 44.3 percent of his targets, which ranked ninth out of 48 wide receivers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. They just weren’t valuable targets in offenses that weren’t manufacturing looks for Cobb.

He now finds himself in an offense that just sent 150 targets right out the door to the desert and expecting Cooks to fill that void is foolish. He is a lock to return value at his current ADP and offers upside that some late-round targets cannot provide. There’s no shame in taking an old slot receiver around where rookies fly off the board simply because they are unknown, exciting products. 

The Athletic’s Jeff Howe tweeted that it’s “too early to know” if Sony Michel (foot) will be available for Week 1 after the Patriots signed Lamar Miller.

August hasn’t been a fun month for those up in Foxborough. After the Patriots lost several starters to the opt-out system, it appears that Michel is still on the mend from his foot surgery in May. Injuries have been haunting the 2018 first-round pick ever since he left Georgia, and the signing of Lamar Miller to a one-year deal (pending a physical) is telling about where Michel is at in the recovery process. While some brushed this off as a veteran signing to replace Brandon Bolden, who opted out, Miller is an entirely different player. Although coming off of a torn ACL, Miller was a solid option for the Houston Texans for several years. It would surprise no one if Michel started the year on the PUP, forcing him to miss at least six games as he rehabs from another lower body injury.

With that in mind, what’s this backfield worth to fantasy? Frankly, outside of James White it seems like one to avoid. While Cam Newton under center could open up rushing lanes this shouldn’t be a high-scoring offense. White will still have his valuable role as a pass-catcher, someone I love to target in all PPR formats given his RB34 ADP. The rushing value will come in an unpredictable mix of Miller, 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris and veteran Rex Burkhead. There are plenty of examples of Belichick using a different running back each week to be “the guy” and with Michel nursing another injury this should be the case all year. They restructured Burkhead’s contract rather than simply cutting him and a third-round investment isn’t a light one when it comes to Harris. On top of all of this, starting left tackle Marcus Cannon was among the eight Patriots who opted out. If Michel is healthy Week 1, he could be a value given that his ADP is currently plummeting. But more likely this a backfield to completely avoid outside of a DFS dart throw each week.

Colts OC Nick Sirianni expects “a great bounce-back year” from T.Y. Hilton, according to The Athletic’s Zak Keefer.

Hilton was the WR57 in 2019, but has never finished outside the top 30 WRs in his eight seasons.

It’s an important year for Hilton. He will be 31 in November on the last year of his contract coming off of an injury-plagued 2019 campaign. The veteran wide receiver has already said that his next contract will be his last, and that he wants to be a “Colt for life,” according to ESPN’s Mike Wells. The team added Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. in the second rounds of the 2019 and 2020 NFL drafts, respectively. They also added quarterback Phillip Rivers in free agency and drafted Jonathan Taylor in the second-round of the 2020 NFL Draft right after Pittman. This is a retooled offense looking to take a step forward after their 2019 season was derailed by Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement last August.

So does Hilton still fit in? That’s the worry many fantasy pundits have right now. This should be a run-heavy team behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Rivers’ yards-per-attempt ranked 11th last season, which looks solid on paper for a deep threat like Hilton, but he completed just 34% of his deep throw attempts. No one had more interceptions (9) or turnover-worthy plays (12) on deep targets than Rivers did in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, who ranked him 23rd as a deep passer.

On top of that Hilton is currently nursing a hamstring injury. While he claims he will be back on the field in a “couple days,” hamstring injuries are notorious for popping back up later in the year. There are simply too many variables for me to buy the bounce-back for a player who does not have touchdowns to bank on as a baseline (hasn’t surpassed six touchdowns since 2014 when he had seven). With a variety of valuable mid-round wide receivers to target, Hilton is the one I’m likely to pass on.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara said he “tore his knee” in Week 6 and “was dealing with it the whole season,” according to beat reporter Nick Underhill.

Honestly, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Kamara was far from himself when he returned to the field in Week 10. His signature ability to make people miss was inconsistent and while he performed for fantasy, he underwhelmed in real life. Nagging ankle, knee and back injuries will do that to you. Kamara spent the offseason rehabbing from the injury and avoided surgery, which is good and bad news. The good news, of course, is that the injury did not require surgery but the worry remains that he could require it should it flare up mid-season, putting his year in jeopardy.

All in all, Kamara is still worthy of a top five pick in drafts. He should be 100% healthy by Week 1 and the leader of a high-powered Saints rushing attack. His ability to catch exactly 81 balls for three straight seasons is telling to the level of consistency fantasy owners should expect. Positive regression is coming for his all-purpose touchdowns after scoring just six in 2019 compared to 18 in 2018, and 13 touchdowns as a rookie in 2017. Draft away and enjoy the magic a healthy Kamara brings to the football field.

ESPN’s Cameron Wolf predicts that Dolphins running back Jordan Howard will see 50% of the team’s carries, with running back Matt Breida seeing 35%. 

Everybody seems to be snoozing on the Miami backfield. Who can blame them? This was a team last season where the leading rusher was Ryan Fitzpatrick. But the Dolphins made it a priority this season, signing Howard in free agency and following it up with a draft-day trade for Breida. There’s no reason to doubt Wolf’s prediction here. Howard is a bruising, powerful rusher who rebounded well with the Eagles in 2019, but he can’t catch a cold. Breida is an explosive runner in his own right but has durability issues, often playing injured or leaving mid-game. His ability as a receiver in a limited role pairs well with Howard’s ability as a rusher. Both are fantasy values, albeit with low ceilings, with Howard likely to see 200 carries and Breida as the possible No. 3 or No. 4 target in this offense. With the offensive line expected to be improved.

All context is relative to Half-PPR, 12-team formats unless specified otherwise.