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Thread: Fantasy Football News, Info, Articles 2017/18 (Lots of ESPN Insider)

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  1. #1 Fantasy Football News, Info, Articles 2017/18 (Lots of ESPN Insider) 
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    Which rookie RBs will shine in fantasy this season?
    Matt Bowen
    ESPN Insider

    With the pro frame to pound the ball between the tackles and the speed to rip off explosive plays, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette leads a talented rookie class at the position. But can Fournette, along with Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, produce consistent numbers this season for fantasy owners? Let's break down the top rookie running backs heading into the 2017 fantasy football season.

    Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars


    With a current ADP (average draft position) of 26th overall (RB13), Fournette is coming off the board in that third-round range. And I don't blame owners for buying in on the LSU product after watching his college tape. This guy? He has freakish talent at the position.

    Look at his size, the 4.51 speed and the ability to punish defensive backs when they try to square him up (see example below). Nasty stuff. Fournette can drag tacklers at the point of attack, and that speed shows up often on the tape. Just give him a lane.

    In Jacksonville, all signs point to Fournette as the featured back under new head coach Doug Marrone. He's an upgrade over Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon. We know that. Plus, after Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles tossed 16 interceptions and ranked 28th overall in total QBR (49.2) in 2016, the logical thinking here is that Marrone will feature a more run-controlled and balanced system.

    Not only does that keep Bortles out of adverse situations, but it also allows the Jags to lean on Fournette to control the tempo of the game. Wear down opposing defenses and create some one-on-one looks outside (and over the top) for Bortles to throw the rock to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. How do you do that? By giving Fournette at least 15-20 carries a game.

    Do I have some concerns? Sure. The Jags' offensive line isn't a top-tier unit, Fournette had injuries in college (he played in only seven games in '16), and I want to see if his big-boy running style can hold up for 16 weeks in the pro game. Can he consistently drop those pads on NFL linebackers? And, from a PPR (point per reception) standpoint, owners shouldn't expect monster numbers in the passing game outside of screens, quick swing routes and check-downs. He doesn't have top-end versatility at the position.

    However, I do see a lot of value here for a rookie running back with that unique blend of size and speed along with the ability to carry a heavy workload. Owners should count on Fournette getting the ball on goal-line carries, and his explosive-play ability will add to his totals. For me, he's a high-end RB2 with an RB1 ceiling if the Jags show improvement up front and get a little more out of Bortles to keep that safety out of the box all day long.

    Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

    At 202 pounds, I don't see McCaffrey handling the same monster workload he did back at Stanford in the run game (253 carries in '16). Think more along the lines of edge schemes and nickel runs (three wide receivers in the game) to attack a lighter run front (six- or seven-man front). However, with a current ADP of 33rd overall (RB14), owners are seeing the value here due to the versatility McCaffrey brings to the position.

    McCaffrey is a clean route runner with high 4.4 speed and the electric footwork needed to separate at the break. Just look at his college tape (see example below). McCaffrey lit up opposing linebackers and safeties trying to check him in coverage. The angle route, the wheel route, the quick underneath option route, etc. He has that rare ability to become a moveable piece in the Panthers' offense under Mike Shula, which includes the RPO schemes (run-pass options) with McCaffrey catching the ball from Cam Newton on bubble screens. Get this cat in space? Man, that's tough on any defense.

    Now, veteran running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to start off the season as the primary ball carrier in Carolina, Newton is still going to get goal-line carries, and owners have to prep for a slight transition with the Panthers' offense.

    Along with McCaffrey, the Panthers also drafted slot receiver Curtis Samuel out of Ohio State -- another target with matchup ability. Think inside throws here and the underneath passing game. That's an area where Newton struggled last season, completing only 54.8 percent on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards (30th in the NFL).

    Can Newton improve in the quick game? Can the Panthers find creative ways to game plan for McCaffrey? And will the rookie get at least 10-15 total touches a game? I'm saying yes to all three.

    We all know McCaffrey's value is going to dip a bit in standard scoring leagues, but in PPR formats? Yeah, he will put up numbers. He's a solid RB2 there with fourth-round value. I'm eager to find out how opposing defenses are going to game-plan against him.

    Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

    I listed Cook as my top breakout candidate for the 2017 season, because his skill set is an ideal fit for the modern pro game. He's a three-down guy with the ability to stick the ball inside, bounce to the edge and win as a receiver in the passing game.

    Cook's current ADP sits at 58th overall (RB22), and I think owners can get really good value at that spot. Now, I understand the concerns with Minnesota's O-line (which I will get to) and the crowded backfield heading into Vikings training camp. But when I studied Cook on the Florida State tape -- against top-level competition -- his overall game pops.

    Pull up the Clemson game and watch Cook light up the national champs (see example below) or flip to the Orange Bowl win over Michigan. Cook was extremely productive at Florida State (1,765 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns in '16). Plus, he has the "game speed" and enough versatility to produce with quarterback Sam Bradford in the Vikings' West Coast route tree under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

    Getting back to that O-line issue in Minnesota, the numbers from last year tell the story. The Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL with an average of 75.3 yards rushing per game and only 3.17 yards per rush. That's bad football.

    However, the Vikings did scoop up tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency, and they also drafted Ohio State center Pat Elfein in the third round. Sure, that doesn't push the Vikings' O-line to the top of the class by any means, but it is an upgrade over last season. Now you add in the dynamic skill set of Cook in a scheme than should feature more zone-based runs? I can see much more production on the ground this year in Minnesota.

    Early in the season, owners should expect Cook to split carries with veteran Latavius Murray. But as the NFL calendar progresses, Cook has the ability to develop into the No.1 back for the Vikings. He brings PPR upside with breakout potential as a low-end RB2 on draft day. Target him in the fifth to sixth rounds.

    Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals


    Of all the running backs we discussed today, Mixon has the most raw talent of the group. His tape? It's legit. Mixon has the strength to run inside, the skills to produce numbers in the passing game and the home-run ability to take the ball to the house at any moment. Those are excellent traits at the position for a rookie who enters a great situation with the Bengals.

    In Cincinnati, versatile back Giovani Bernard is coming off an ACL injury, and I see an open competition with Jeremy Hill in camp after the veteran's inconsistent play last season. Hill did find the end zone nine times in '16, but he also averaged fewer than four yards per carry (3.8) and failed to hit the 50-yard mark in nine games. In my opinion, Mixon is an upgrade over Hill, and he has the ability to stay on the field in passing situations.

    Which rookie RBs will shine in fantasy this season?

    The value of Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey changes dramatically based on your scoring system. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    With the pro frame to pound the ball between the tackles and the speed to rip off explosive plays, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette leads a talented rookie class at the position. But can Fournette, along with Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, produce consistent numbers this season for fantasy owners? Let's break down the top rookie running backs heading into the 2017 fantasy football season.



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    Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars


    With a current ADP (average draft position) of 26th overall (RB13), Fournette is coming off the board in that third-round range. And I don't blame owners for buying in on the LSU product after watching his college tape. This guy? He has freakish talent at the position.

    Look at his size, the 4.51 speed and the ability to punish defensive backs when they try to square him up (see example below). Nasty stuff. Fournette can drag tacklers at the point of attack, and that speed shows up often on the tape. Just give him a lane.

    Watching college film on Leonard Fournette for @ESPNFantasy. Check out this run...yards after contact. #Jaguars pic.twitter.com/33RwKaAH3D

    - Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) July 21, 2017
    In Jacksonville, all signs point to Fournette as the featured back under new head coach Doug Marrone. He's an upgrade over Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon. We know that. Plus, after Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles tossed 16 interceptions and ranked 28th overall in total QBR (49.2) in 2016, the logical thinking here is that Marrone will feature a more run-controlled and balanced system.

    Not only does that keep Bortles out of adverse situations, but it also allows the Jags to lean on Fournette to control the tempo of the game. Wear down opposing defenses and create some one-on-one looks outside (and over the top) for Bortles to throw the rock to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. How do you do that? By giving Fournette at least 15-20 carries a game.

    Do I have some concerns? Sure. The Jags' offensive line isn't a top-tier unit, Fournette had injuries in college (he played in only seven games in '16), and I want to see if his big-boy running style can hold up for 16 weeks in the pro game. Can he consistently drop those pads on NFL linebackers? And, from a PPR (point per reception) standpoint, owners shouldn't expect monster numbers in the passing game outside of screens, quick swing routes and check-downs. He doesn't have top-end versatility at the position.

    However, I do see a lot of value here for a rookie running back with that unique blend of size and speed along with the ability to carry a heavy workload. Owners should count on Fournette getting the ball on goal-line carries, and his explosive-play ability will add to his totals. For me, he's a high-end RB2 with an RB1 ceiling if the Jags show improvement up front and get a little more out of Bortles to keep that safety out of the box all day long.

    Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

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    At 202 pounds, I don't see McCaffrey handling the same monster workload he did back at Stanford in the run game (253 carries in '16). Think more along the lines of edge schemes and nickel runs (three wide receivers in the game) to attack a lighter run front (six- or seven-man front). However, with a current ADP of 33rd overall (RB14), owners are seeing the value here due to the versatility McCaffrey brings to the position.

    McCaffrey is a clean route runner with high 4.4 speed and the electric footwork needed to separate at the break. Just look at his college tape (see example below). McCaffrey lit up opposing linebackers and safeties trying to check him in coverage. The angle route, the wheel route, the quick underneath option route, etc. He has that rare ability to become a moveable piece in the Panthers' offense under Mike Shula, which includes the RPO schemes (run-pass options) with McCaffrey catching the ball from Cam Newton on bubble screens. Get this cat in space? Man, that's tough on any defense.

    McCaffrey -- Route running skills. This will allow the #Panthers to create matchups vs. LBs & Safeties. pic.twitter.com/hMgV9Myj8r

    - Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) April 28, 2017
    Now, veteran running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to start off the season as the primary ball carrier in Carolina, Newton is still going to get goal-line carries, and owners have to prep for a slight transition with the Panthers' offense.

    Along with McCaffrey, the Panthers also drafted slot receiver Curtis Samuel out of Ohio State -- another target with matchup ability. Think inside throws here and the underneath passing game. That's an area where Newton struggled last season, completing only 54.8 percent on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards (30th in the NFL).

    Can Newton improve in the quick game? Can the Panthers find creative ways to game plan for McCaffrey? And will the rookie get at least 10-15 total touches a game? I'm saying yes to all three.

    We all know McCaffrey's value is going to dip a bit in standard scoring leagues, but in PPR formats? Yeah, he will put up numbers. He's a solid RB2 there with fourth-round value. I'm eager to find out how opposing defenses are going to game-plan against him.

    Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings


    Vikings running back Dalvin Cook could be fantasy's top breakout candidate -- not just among rookies. Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire
    I listed Cook as my top breakout candidate for the 2017 season, because his skill set is an ideal fit for the modern pro game. He's a three-down guy with the ability to stick the ball inside, bounce to the edge and win as a receiver in the passing game.

    Cook's current ADP sits at 58th overall (RB22), and I think owners can get really good value at that spot. Now, I understand the concerns with Minnesota's O-line (which I will get to) and the crowded backfield heading into Vikings training camp. But when I studied Cook on the Florida State tape -- against top-level competition -- his overall game pops.

    Pull up the Clemson game and watch Cook light up the national champs (see example below) or flip to the Orange Bowl win over Michigan. Cook was extremely productive at Florida State (1,765 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns in '16). Plus, he has the "game speed" and enough versatility to produce with quarterback Sam Bradford in the Vikings' West Coast route tree under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

    Dalvin Cook vs. Clemson -- Read the block & bounce the ball outside. Shows some speed here. #Vikings pic.twitter.com/8AXc8T4jwb

    - Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) April 29, 2017
    Getting back to that O-line issue in Minnesota, the numbers from last year tell the story. The Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL with an average of 75.3 yards rushing per game and only 3.17 yards per rush. That's bad football.

    However, the Vikings did scoop up tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency, and they also drafted Ohio State center Pat Elfein in the third round. Sure, that doesn't push the Vikings' O-line to the top of the class by any means, but it is an upgrade over last season. Now you add in the dynamic skill set of Cook in a scheme than should feature more zone-based runs? I can see much more production on the ground this year in Minnesota.

    Early in the season, owners should expect Cook to split carries with veteran Latavius Murray. But as the NFL calendar progresses, Cook has the ability to develop into the No.1 back for the Vikings. He brings PPR upside with breakout potential as a low-end RB2 on draft day. Target him in the fifth to sixth rounds.

    Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals


    Of all the running backs we discussed today, Mixon has the most raw talent of the group. His tape? It's legit. Mixon has the strength to run inside, the skills to produce numbers in the passing game and the home-run ability to take the ball to the house at any moment. Those are excellent traits at the position for a rookie who enters a great situation with the Bengals.

    In Cincinnati, versatile back Giovani Bernard is coming off an ACL injury, and I see an open competition with Jeremy Hill in camp after the veteran's inconsistent play last season. Hill did find the end zone nine times in '16, but he also averaged fewer than four yards per carry (3.8) and failed to hit the 50-yard mark in nine games. In my opinion, Mixon is an upgrade over Hill, and he has the ability to stay on the field in passing situations.


    Now, with Hill going into his contract year, we could see the veteran back turn it on this season. That happens in the league when money is on the line. Produce and you get paid. I get it.

    But the opportunity here for Mixon is ideal with the Bengals. And that's been reflected in his current ADP (55th overall, RB20). Like Cook, owners have to think about value with Mixon. And don't be surprised if he comes off the board earlier than the Florida State product in that late-fourth-round range.

    Bottom line? He could be a sleeper pick, a rookie running back who wins the starting role early in the season and produces high-end RB2 numbers all season.
     

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    Jameis Winston poised to join elite fantasy quarterbacks in 2017
    KC Joyner
    ESPN Insider

    It wasn't that long ago that 250 points was the gold standard for a fantasy quarterback, but last season 18 quarterbacks reached or exceeded that total.

    The production sea change at this position makes it imperative for fantasy owners to find someone who will reach the 250-point mark, but any owner who wants to separate his/her team from the pack has to aim for a quarterback with a high percentage of reaching or exceeding the 300-point bar.

    One player who fits the description in the upcoming season is Jameis Winston. His 265.5 fantasy points per season in his first two NFL campaigns shows a proven track record for reaching the necessary 250-point floor, but the Buccaneers' offseason personnel moves were such perfect fits for Tampa Bay's offense that they give Winston a superb chance of joining the 300-point club in 2017.

    Let's take a closer look at why Winston can hit this elite production ceiling.

    The Bucs have the most vertically inclined pass offense in the NFL

    The Dirk Koetter passing system is one of the most aggressive in the league in terms of throwing vertical passes (defined as aerials traveling 11 or more yards downfield).

    According to my game tracking charts that include penalty plays such as pass interference and illegal contact, Winston racked up 259 vertical pass attempts last season. That total easily placed first in the league, as it was 30 more than the second-place finisher posted (Carson Palmer, 229).

    Quantity over quality last year

    This downfield largesse did not quite equate into an elite fantasy point total, as Winston tallied only 107.68 fantasy points on vertical passes, a mark that placed ninth among quarterbacks.

    The main reason for the disparity is Winston posted only 9.0 yards per attempt (YPA) on vertical passes, a total that ranked 31st in that category. That led to Winston gaining only 0.44 fantasy points per vertical pass attempt, a rate that ranked 25th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks in passer rating last season.

    It was a classic case of quantity over quality, so the Buccaneers set out this offseason to do something to turn that equation around.

    DeSean Jackson + Mike Evans = Best vertical WR tandem?

    The Bucs' first step was signing free-agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Last year, Jackson was one of the most impactful downfield targets in the league. He ranked second among wide receivers in vertical YPA (16.9) and was first in that category among those with 40 or more vertical targets.

    This was not an incidental ranking, as defenders had good coverage against Jackson (loosely defined as being in position to stop a pass when it arrives) on only 23.6 percent of Jackson's vertical targets. That total was third best among wide receivers and was once again tops among wide receivers with 40 or more vertical targets.

    Jackson's impact plays could go a long way toward helping Mike Evans improve his YPA and good coverage numbers, as Evans tied for 73rd in vertical YPA (8.3) and ranked 29th in good coverage percentage (36.5) last season.

    To get an idea of the kind of impact Jackson could have on this offense, consider that he posted 125.9 vertical fantasy points last season, a total that nearly equaled the vertical point production of all Buccaneers wide receivers other than Evans (143.6).

    If Jackson can come close to replicating his incredible 2016 vertical numbers, and if his presence can help bring Evans' vertical YPA back into double-digit territory, it could give Winston an unparalleled 1-2 vertical wide receiver tandem.

    Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard could also give the Bucs the best vertical tight end combination in the league

    Winston is very good at involving his tight ends in the vertical passing game. This trait helped Cameron Brate rank second among tight ends in vertical receptions (24), fourth in vertical yards (428) and fifth in vertical fantasy points (72.8).

    That would be enough to concern any defense, but Tampa Bay took this position a step further by drafting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. Howard saw only 21 vertical targets last season, a total that ranked 14th among Power 5 tight ends, but he still posted the fourth-highest vertical receiving yards total (386) because he had the best receptions-per-target pace, catching 71.4 percent of the vertical targets directed his way.

    Most teams don't have one tight end capable of consistently stretching a defense on vertical passes, but Winston will have two of them. It would not be a surprise to see this result in Tampa Bay getting more than 100 vertical fantasy points from its tight ends, which would be a notable feat considering that only four teams did so last season (Carolina, Indianapolis, New England and Seattle).

    Matchup slate is not daunting

    According to my matchup charts, the Buccaneers have only four games this season against teams that rate among the top 20 percent in vertical coverage matchup strength. They also have three matchups against teams that place among the bottom 20 percent in vertical coverage matchup strength. Combine that with the rest of Tampa Bay's opponents' pass coverage matchup ratings and it means that Winston has the 11th-most favorable schedule among quarterbacks in the 2017 campaign.

    One caveat of note

    As great as the Buccaneers' pass catching combinations can be, there is one offensive area that could hinder the Bucs this season. Their offensive line placed 31st in my recent projected offensive line rankings for the 2017 season. This group is apt to allow the pass rush to get to Winston far too often this season, and that concern does add some risk to his fantasy upside.

    Bottom line

    Forty-four points. That's all that these personnel additions would need to post to vault Winston from his 256-point total from last season into 300-point territory in 2017. It is possible that his production increase will be even higher than that, but even if we use the offensive line ranking to hedge the bet at a 300-point ceiling, it gives Winston strong mid-tier QB1 potential, which makes him a value pick at his current upper-tier QB2 ranking in ESPN's average draft position.
     

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    QB ranking tiers: How long should you wait to take elite passers?
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER


    Fantasy owners are always going to have their biases, and those tend to show the most in a draft or auction when an owner has about 12 seconds to decide on a player. We’ve all been there, right? It’s round 3, the top player in your queue has just been stolen from you at the last second -- the sound that makes can lead to nightmares -- and an expeditious choice needs to be made. We all know it’s likely to be the wrong one. If only you came extra, super prepared and knew which players were still available, as well as their relative value in relation to the player you didn’t acquire!

    Decisions must be made swiftly and on the fly, and there has to be a quick way to ignore the biases and judge the available talent left at your disposal. That’s where tiered systems can save the day, or in this case, drafts. After all, the draft or auction is the key day on any fantasy calendar and nobody wants to make the wrong move, but when the quarterback you pegged for round 3 ends up on another team, you must act fast. Using a tiered system, you might find that someone just as valuable is still on the board and secure them immediately. Alternatively, you might discover that you can wait another 30 minutes to fill the position.

    Today, we begin unveiling the tiered rankings for the big three fantasy football positions (or at least one writer’s opinion of what they should look like). Yours should be different and reflect your opinions; there’s no way you unilaterally concur with all my rankings, and you’re not lazy -- at least we hope not -- so do the work. After all, it's for a good cause. Figure out which players belong in which classes and then attack your draft or auction with focused zeal. Don’t worry so much when you hear that frightful sound and recognize your player queue is under attack. You’ve got tiered rankings, and all will be well.

    As always, we start with the quarterback position, which is annually misjudged on draft day for value even by the folks who know they shouldn’t go quarterback in round 3 but do so anyway.

    Tier 1: Round 5

    Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

    Tom Brady, New England Patriots

    Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

    This is the Big Three in my opinion. Even if they end up being the top three overall fantasy scorers, however, you still should secure a solid base of flex-eligible players (several running backs/wide receivers) before drafting any of them because those guys aren’t so easy to replace. Quarterbacks, even the so-called safe ones, can be replaced. Quarterbacks dominate scoring, even in PPR formats. Of last year’s top 30 scorers, 17 were quarterbacks. In a non-PPR format, it’s even more extreme, with the likes of Alex Smith and Sam Bradford outscoring all but seven flex-eligible options. Yes, Bradford outscored Antonio Brown in non-PPR.

    In a 10- or even 12-team format, plenty of solid performers aren’t being utilized and are either free agents or on benches, meaning their fantasy value is simply wasted. They’re the equivalent of closers in baseball; trade your quarterback for other needs because chances are you have other needs, and you can find useful quarterback play via free agency. Good luck finding a free agent running back you can count on in Week 5.

    Rodgers was fantasy’s top passer in 2016, Brady might have been if not for the silly suspension and Brees has finished in the top-6 each of the past 11 seasons. Yes, these guys are a bit different than the others. Others might outscore them by New Year’s Day, but you’re not going to want to take chances. Of course, I’m not going to get any of these quarterbacks because there’s always someone panicking and taking a quarterback late in round 1, or right after they’ve snagged a few running backs and think all the work is done. It’s not. Plenty of quarterbacks with better value will still be on the board later. The top quarterback in the next tier was a 13th-round choice last season.

    Tier 2: Round 8

    Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

    Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

    Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

    Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

    At this point in the draft, it’s going to take a disciplined person to pass up top quarterbacks who could easily push their way into the top tier, so be that guy or gal. And don’t snicker, because a few of these quarterbacks might just push their way into the top tier. Ryan, in his ninth season, finally did it. We’ve seen Luck do it several times. Newton was the top guy in 2015 and his balky shoulder has supposedly been fixed. Wilson can throw and run, but needs better offensive line protection and a running game. Any of these fellows are more than reasonable choices earlier, but one or two could slip to this point and prove a truly valuable asset. Yes, I do have some concern about both Luck and Newton -- each player is an injury risk -- but because this position is so deep, it’s worth tinkering with possible QBs at this point in the draft. You can also find a viable starter via free agency in mid-September.

    Tier 3: Round 12

    Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

    Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

    Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

    Perhaps each team in your league will have its starting quarterback long before this point, but it’s unnecessary with this kind of depth. Prescott is coming off a magical rookie campaign, and while skeptics claim he can’t possibly do it again, that’s not really the case. He can! Prescott isn’t asked to carry the offense. Dallas boasts an excellent running game. Cousins, however, has carried his offense in consecutive seasons. I’m not sure how many more years he needs to finish as a top-10 fantasy quarterback to actually be recognized as one, but he gets my vote. Carr was a top-10 guy last season and his broken leg is fine. He shouldn’t be compared to Luck/Newton for risk assessment.

    Tier 4: Round 13

    Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

    Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Here we have three generally misjudged fantasy options, all of whom remain reasonable starting quarterbacks for a 10-team format. Winston actually did make strides in his second year, but scored fewer fantasy points because (predictably) the rushing touchdowns went down. Stafford proved he didn’t need Calvin Johnson to salvage his value. In general, a good quarterback will always find new weapons. In a sense, Roethlisberger is the antithesis of Cousins. He keeps getting selected as a top-10 fantasy quarterback but only once in the past seven seasons has he actually finished as one. By the way, it’s not simply about the occasional missed games. His value doesn’t match the statistics, but if you need a backup quarterback at this point -- and if you’ve got Luck or Newton you could use one -- then go for it. Frankly, most of you don’t need to draft a second quarterback. You’ll probably do so anyway because you don’t think you need a sixth running back or wide receiver, but you certainly might.

    Tier 5: After Round 14

    Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

    Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

    Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

    Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills

    Go ahead and draft Eli Manning, Carson Palmer or Blake Bortles -- he was the eighth-highest scoring QB last season -- and it makes sense. Can’t argue with the pick. But this tier does possess a few high-upside options. Mariota and Wentz have some serious weapons this year, something they lacked last season. Rivers has been a top-10 guy before and could take the Matt Ryan path back to sudden fantasy stardom, at least in theory. And Taylor was a top-10 guy last season -- even with the Week 17 benching -- thanks to his legs. There are so many quarterbacks out there, which is why I believe a 2-QB format (and PPR) is my preferred format.

    Tier 6: Free agency

    Eli Manning, New York Giants

    Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

    Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

    I wouldn't be stunned if these guys end up being picked even in 10-team leagues, because each has finished a top-10 guy in the past. In theory, all of them could return to such a level. Bortles actually did become a top-10 player in each of the past two seasons, although volume -- rather than excellent performance -- accounted for his numbers. While we’ve seen what these fellows can do, it’s just not necessary to secure them as backups when a handcuff running back or third receiver on several clubs could be much more valuable.
     

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    Always enjoy this thread, Hache. Thanks.
     

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    Quote Originally Posted by Michelangelo View Post
    Always enjoy this thread, Hache. Thanks.
     

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    RB ranking tiers: Seeking value among vets, rookies, timeshares
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/8/17

    Unlike the quarterback position, which has a useful strategy all to itself, fantasy owners are rarely going to look at the running backs from their draft and claim they’re tangibly set at the position. In fact, halfway through the average draft, most owners will look at their running backs -- and the many problematic options lurking -- and come away unimpressed

    That’s how things tend to work these days at running back, as injuries, timeshares and so much general uncertainty make constructing a team virtual guesswork. Fantasy owners are no longer directed into coveting the position in early rounds, though it’s best to get a decent balance at the position.

    Hopefully this blog entry on following a tiered system can help.

    Obviously, we cannot know who your early running backs are, so once one hits the middle rounds, owners should be prepared to follow their own instincts, get a proper mix of reasonable options and, as always, avoid reaching.

    Value is key. Draft six running backs and hope three can be weekly plays. Sure, we’d all hope for more, but this is running back, so realism is warranted.

    With quarterback tiers in the rear-view mirror and wide receivers pending later this week, here is a look at my running back tiers.

    Tier 1: Top of Round 1

    David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

    Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

    Just like at quarterback, there is a "big three" at this position, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Well, you could -- if the second fellow gets hurt or suspended again, or if the third guy gets suspended -- but for right now, all is well. For now. If these three guys go 1-2-3, one can’t argue.

    Tier 2: Top of Round 2

    LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

    Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

    Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

    Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

    DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

    One could debate the overall placement in comparison to wide receivers, and it would make perfect sense. McCoy and Gordon could very well be first-round choices, and nobody would argue. This is a rather large tier, but for each one, there’s some degree of concern. The concern will only grow later. McCoy and Gordon probably see their touchdowns decline. Freeman and Murray could share touches with teammates more than last season. Howard isn’t a pass-catcher, and these are PPR tiers. But the running back position as a whole is a mess, so the Tier 2 guys remain safe fantasy starters.

    Tier 3: Late Round 2

    Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

    Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

    Really, Tier 2 could have two more players. I’m just a bit more scared about these fellows than the others. Miller’s touches were up, but his yards per carry and receptions were not. The Texans could easily scale back his touches to what we saw in his Miami days to get better production. Ajayi had an interesting season replacing Miller. The Dolphins didn’t even dress him Week 1. Then he had to play. Then he had a trio of 200-yard rushing performances but was otherwise quiet. His workload is also in question, and by the way, even if it’s Tom Savage and Jay Cutler as the respective quarterbacks, does that help these guys?

    Tier 4: Round 3

    Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

    Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

    Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

    Gurley is the veteran of the group and the one coming off the rough season, but Jared Goff and the offensive line figure to improve, making his life easier. Then we’ve got three rookies. Fournette probably won’t catch many passes. McCaffrey figures to catch many passes, but the overall touches could be problematic. And Mixon really might do just about everything, so his upside trumps the others, in theory. Whatever the case, I like all three quite a bit, as shown here. Rookie running backs with great opportunity can do great things, so don’t be afraid to reach a little.

    Tier 5: Round 4

    Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns

    Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

    Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

    Each of these veterans enters a crossroads season. Crowell is better statistically than most realize, but it’s worth pointing out the club has another running back to catch passes. The Saints brought in a future Hall of Famer in Adrian Peterson, who might or might not be too old to star again, to make Ingram’s situation muddled, but again, the numbers should still be there. As for Lynch, coming out of retirement to a solid situation with a winning team and offense, well, at least he didn’t get hurt or banged around last season by linebackers. He should, in theory, be healthy and motivated.

    Tier 6: Round 5

    Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

    Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

    Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

    Last season, Gore just missed the top 10 at running back, and Hyde would have made it had he played 16 games, but there are varying opinions about each moving ahead. Gore is not young. Hyde is not durable. Each of their teams brought in potentially meaningful reinforcements. For Cook, he is the potentially meaningful reinforcement for Peterson and figures to see immediate opportunities. These might still be RB2 options, but in a perfect running back world, they would be treated more as flex choices. If only fantasy owners had the luxury.

    Tier 7: Round 6

    Bilal Powell, New York Jets

    Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers

    Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens

    Some unique situations here, but each guy is obviously capable of catching passes from the backfield. Montgomery was a wide receiver when last season began but also averaged 5.9 yards per rush. Just give him the ball! I'd like to see Powell get the ball more as well, but wow, the Jets’ offense might be a problem. The Ravens could also have issues, but Woodhead is a proven PPR star, at least when he’s healthy.

    Tier 8: Round 7

    Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs

    Eddie Lacy, Seattle Seahawks

    Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons

    Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

    Paul Perkins, New York Giants

    There are 1,000-yard rushers and starters here, so let’s call this good value for several of these players. Then again, there is downside. Ware and Stewart weren’t so great last season, and neither is a lock to hold off hotshot rookies in their respective backfields. Lacy has had chances and joins a new team, but he isn’t expected to catch passes. Coleman catches passes, and certainly should threaten Freeman’s touches. And then there’s Perkins, who isn’t held in higher esteem, because his role remains a question and he isn’t expected to catch many passes. This seems like a tier in which one or two players could really outperform tepid expectations.

    Tier 9: Round 8

    C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos

    Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots

    LeGarrette Blount, Philadelphia Eagles

    Two of these fellows would seem to have fallen way too far. Anderson, for all the promising talk and generous draft picks spent on him, has still never achieved even 900 rushing yards in a season, is entering Year 5, and is no lock to hold a starting job. Take a chance this late, there’s little downside. The others are somewhat connected, since Blount left the Patriots for the Eagles, and few expect the same level of production. Similarly, few expect Gillislee to replace Blount’s production. None of these guys figures to catch passes, which is a problem in PPR scoring unless many touchdowns are scored.

    Tier 10: Rounds 9-10

    Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs

    Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions

    C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks

    Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions

    Duke Johnson Jr., Cleveland Browns

    Rob Kelley, Washington Redskins

    Jacquizz Rodgers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Adrian Peterson, New Orleans Saints

    Quite a mix of options here, including several sets of teammates. Think you know what the Lions or Buccaneers will end up doing? It might not matter. Health and off-field issues cloud these pictures as well. Hunt might not steal the job from Ware this summer, but he should make it interesting. And drafting Peterson this late might seem like a gift from above, since we’ve seen the former Viking surprise before, but Ingram is really good and the Saints have many weapons.

    Tier 11: Rounds 11-12

    James White, New England Patriots

    Matt Forte, New York Jets

    Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens

    Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

    Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

    Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

    Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles

    Dion Lewis, New England Patriots

    There certainly could be a starter or two lurking here, but upside seems blunted, unless it’s Henry. If Murray gets hurt, Henry could star. West likely starts for Baltimore, but Woodhead should play quite a bit. Rookies are always dangerous, and Mixon could falter in Cincinnati, deeming the former timeshare of Hill/Bernard relevant again. Of course, if I believed that, they’d be five rounds higher in this space.

    Tier 12: Rounds 13-14

    Jamaal Charles, Denver Broncos

    Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins

    Shane Vereen, New York Giants

    Latavius Murray, Minnesota Vikings

    Joe Williams, San Francisco 49ers

    Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins

    Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos

    A former top-five fantasy pick and a 1,000-yard rusher from 2015 highlight this tier, but circumstances have certainly changed for Charles and Murray. Charles might not even make the Broncos. Murray has battled an ankle injury and figures to back up the rookie Cook. There are pass-catchers lurking here for fill-in service, like Thompson and Vereen, but there’s little chance they burst into top-20 options.

    Tier 13: The rest

    DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders

    Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders

    Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles

    Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

    Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers

    Tim Hightower, San Francsico 49ers

    Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

    Lance Dunbar, Los Angeles Rams

    Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots

    D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans

    Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys

    James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Could one of these likely undrafted fantasy options turn into a valuable asset? Well of course they can! Happens every year! Several rookies are here, and perhaps they simply need opportunity to be great, including the Green Bay, Houston and Pittsburgh options at the end. Dallas’ Elliott should be great again, but should injury or suspension get in the way, McFadden gets the luxury of running behind that offensive line. And Oakland’s Lynch certainly isn’t young, and his backups are likely to be on the free-agent waiver wire in September.
     

  7. #7  
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    Don't expect as many touchdowns from these 16 players, including David Johnson and Antonio Brown
    Mike Clay
    8/7/17
    ESPN INSIDER


    One of my favorite exercises each offseason is to go back to evaluate my predictions and projections from the previous year. Whether it's team record predictions, fantasy rankings or bold takes, I find it's a good way to tweak and improve "the process."

    History has shown that predicting touchdown regression is significantly easier than you might imagine, especially in a sport so complicated to project. Last year's version of this article proved this yet again.
    Here were the eight players featured and how things played out:

    PLAYER 2015 TD 2016 PROJECTION 2016 ACTUAL
    Doug Baldwin 14 7 7
    Allen Robinson 14 8 6
    Ted Ginn Jr. 10 3 4
    Tavon Austin 9 4 4
    Kirk Cousins 5 2 4
    Tyler Eifert 13 6 (13 games) 5 (8 games)
    Allen Hurns 10 6 3 (11 games)
    Karlos Williams 9 2 DNP
    In each case, the player scored fewer touchdowns in 2016, and most came in pretty close to expected. This is far from surprising, as we've learned over the years that players simply can't sustain extremely high scoring rates. It's not a knock on their talent; scoring is simply more about opportunity.

    You want proof? Good, I have it.

    From 2007 to 2015, there were 245 instances in which a player totaled nine or more touchdowns as a rusher or receiver. Of those, a whopping 207 times (84.5 percent) the player scored fewer touchdowns the next season, and the average dip was 4.8. Of the 64 occasions when a player scored 13 or more TDs, 59 times (92.2 percent) he scored fewer the next season (average dip of 7.0). Of the 25 instances in which a player scored 15-plus touchdowns, 100 percent of the time that player scored fewer TDs the next season. In 2016, David Johnson (20), LeGarrette Blount (18) and Ezekiel Elliott (16) hit that mark.

    Players With 9+ Rush/Rec TDs, 2007-15
    TDS SAMPLE %* AVG. DECLINE
    15+ 25 100 8.8
    14 13 85 6.1
    13 26 88 5.7
    12 34 71 3.3
    11 39 87 5.5
    10 54 83 3.9
    9 54 83 3.7
    245 85 4.8
    *Percentage who scored fewer TDs next season
    As if that's not enough to help us predict touchdown regression, we also have opportunity-adjusted touchdowns (OTD). In this piece, I'll be referencing OTD, which is a statistic that weighs every carry/target and converts the data into one number that indicates a player's scoring opportunity. Put another way, it is how many touchdowns a league-average player would've scored with the exact same opportunity as the player shown.

    A careful examination of 2016 usage for the players below tells us that we should expect a drop in their scoring production this season.

    Note that this study is limited to regular-season rushing and receiving data.

    Kenny Stills | Miami Dolphins

    2016 TDs: 9 | OTD: 3.9

    From 2007 to 2015, 68 players posted a season in which they scored on at least 15 percent of their receptions (minimum 40 receptions). Of those, 63 players (92.6 percent) scored fewer touchdowns the next season, with an average dip of 5.6 scores. Three players made the cut for this damning list last season. They are Stills (42 receptions, 9 TDs), Davante Adams (75, 12) and Dez Bryant (50, 8). Stills' target share increased down the stretch and he signed a four-year, $32 million contract extension during the offseason, but he'll need significantly more volume in order to match his 2016 touchdown total. That's unlikely in a run-heavy offense that will also need to keep Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Julius Thomas busy.

    2017 Projection: 5

    Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson | Green Bay Packers

    Adams' 2016 TDs: 12 | OTD: 7.8

    Nelson's 2016 TDs: 14 | OTD: 10.6

    In the past decade, there have been eight seasons in which a Packers wide receiver scored nine-plus touchdowns. All seven who played the next season scored fewer touchdowns. After scoring four touchdowns and registering nine end zone targets during his first two NFL seasons, Adams busted out to the tune of 12 scores in 2016. Fantasy's No. 9 scoring wideout caught seven of his 16 end zone targets (fifth-most). Nelson, meanwhile, racked up 20 end zone targets, which trailed only Mike Evans for most in the league. Nelson caught 12 of them and required post-catch runs of 1 and 13 yards on the other two scores. Nelson is a bold player to pick for a dip in scoring, considering he's found the end zone 13-plus times during three of his past five seasons, including his past two (he missed all of 2015). However, as noted earlier, history suggests at least a slight dip. Even with the projected drop, Nelson and Adams will find paydirt often as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

    2017 Projection: Adams 8, Nelson 10

    LeGarrette Blount | Philadelphia Eagles

    2016 TDs: 18 | OTD: 16.5

    Blount paced the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns and 24 carries inside the 5-yard line last season. That, of course, came on a career-high 299 carries; he entered the year with 31 career rushing scores and 34 carries inside the 5. His OTD actually wasn't too far off his touchdown total and he'll remain the goal-line back in Philadelphia, but it's unreasonable to expect him to come close to matching his 2016 numbers in a lesser offense. As a nonfactor in the passing game, Blount's fantasy upside is capped, especially in PPR formats.

    2017 Projection: 8

    Tevin Coleman | Atlanta Falcons

    2016 TDs: 11 | OTD: 5.1

    One of the many benefactors of Atlanta's historic offensive season, Coleman scored 11 touchdowns on only 149 touches last season. Coleman's scoring rate is far from sustainable, especially when you consider that he registered only three carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (he scored on all three) and zero end zone targets. Interestingly, Coleman posted a 3.5 OTD as a rookie in 2015, but scored only one TD and was thus a candidate for a leap forward. He obviously did that and then some. He'll come back to earth along with the rest of the Falcons' offense in 2017.

    2017 Projection: 7

    Tyreek Hill | Kansas City Chiefs

    2016 TDs: 9 | OTD: 4.9

    One of last year's breakout players, Hill found the end zone on nine of his 83 offensive touches and added another three TDs as a returner. That's an unsustainable rate for anyone, let alone a 185-pounder who is rarely used near the goal line. Hill was limited to three end zone targets (120 players had more) and scored three rushing touchdowns despite one carry inside the opponent's 12 yard line. 2012 was the last year a player scored more than two special-teams touchdowns in a single season (Darius Reynaud and Jacoby Jones both pulled it off). Hill's volume will increase since Jeremy Maclin is gone, but Hill's scoring rate is sure to take a dive.

    2017 Projection: 5 (6 including returns)


    Ezekiel Elliott | Dallas Cowboys

    2016 TDs: 16 | OTD: 9.5

    Elliott has the unfortunate distinction of owning the largest gap between his OTD and touchdown total (6.5) last season. That's not a recipe for sustainability. Elliott was afforded 11 carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (10th-most), but somehow managed 15 rushing scores. He scored on five of six carries from the 1-yard line, and eight of his scores came on runs of at least 8 yards. Zeke's lone receiving touchdown came from 87 yards out. Despite all the negativity I just threw out there, Elliott remains the workhorse in a run-heavy offense with a very good offensive line and is expected to see more passing-game work. Just beware that his 2016 scoring rate can't be counted on.

    2017 Projection: 14

    LeSean McCoy | Buffalo Bills

    2016 TDs: 14 | OTD: 8.5

    After combining for 10 touchdowns (14.0 OTD) during the 2014 and '15 seasons, McCoy exploded for 14 scores in 2016. He scored on four of his nine carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line and failed to see a single end zone target for the seventh time in his eight seasons. Tremendous blocking (league- and career-high 4.0 yards before contact) allowed McCoy a career-best 5.4 yards per carry and his highest touchdown total since 2011. He remains a workhorse and fantasy RB1, but we should be expecting McCoy to return to Earth in the scoring department this season.

    2017 Projection: 9

    Taylor Gabriel | Atlanta Falcons

    2016 TDs: 7 | OTD: 2.3

    Gabriel gained fantasy relevance thanks to the Falcons' incredible offensive 2016 season. He scored on six of his 36 receptions despite registering only one end zone target. Four of his scores required post-catch runs of at least 20 yards, and his one rushing touchdown came from 9 yards out (his only carry within 46 yards of the goal line). The Falcons' offense will still be pretty good this year, but Gabriel won't see enough volume to repeat of his 2016 scoring production.

    2017 Projection: 4

    Sterling Shepard | New York Giants

    2016 TDs: 8 | OTD: 5.1

    Shepard ranked 36th among wide receivers in receptions (65), but ninth in receiving touchdowns (eight) as a rookie. He scored on four of his seven end zone targets and four of his eight additional targets within 2 yards of the goal line. Especially with Brandon Marshall -- the NFL leader in end zone targets during the past decade with 180 -- now in the mix, Shepard is a good bet for less volume and scoring production in 2017. Shepard is recovering from a low-ankle sprain, but the below projection assumes he's back and ready to roll in Week 1.

    2017 Projection: 5

    Antonio Brown | Pittsburgh Steelers

    2016 TDs: 12 | OTD: 8.5

    The gap of 3.5 between Brown's 2016 touchdown total and OTD was the highest we've seen in his career. Yes, his touchdown total was similar to 2015 (10) and 2014 (13), but he also saw significantly more targets in those seasons (40 and 26 more, respectively, to be exact). Brown did tie for second in the league with 20 end zone targets last season, but he managed only three additional looks inside the 8-yard line and scored on all three. Brown is an absolute stud talent and target monster, but we shouldn't count on him to match his career-best 11.3 percent touchdown-per-reception rate in 2017.

    2017 Projection: 8

    David Johnson | Arizona Cardinals

    2016 TDs: 20 | OTD: 17.3

    So far in his career, Johnson has had a knack for exceeding reasonable expectations in the rushing touchdown department. Through two seasons, he sports a 17.9 rushing OTD, but has run for 24 touchdowns. His receiving numbers (7.9 OTD, 8 touchdowns) are as expected. Johnson racked up an obscene 373 touches last season, which included 22 carries inside the 5-yard line (second-most) and four end zone targets (most among RBs). That helped him to 20 scores, though, as noted earlier, 100 percent of players who have accrued 15-plus touchdowns in a season saw a dip the next season. Of course, Johnson won't be short massive volume again in 2017. Expect a drop in touchdowns, but he'll still be a fantasy superstar.

    2017 Projection: 16

    Jamison Crowder | Washington Redskins

    2016 TDs: 7 | OTD: 3.9

    Crowder ranked 49th among wide receivers with six end zone targets last season (three went for TDs) but was tied for 14th with seven touchdown catches. His other four touchdowns came on post-catch runs of 5, 8, 12 and 57 yards. Crowder is a candidate for a bigger role in Washington this year, but his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame makes it a near lock he won't see much work near the goal line.

    2017 Projection: 4

    Robert Turbin | Indianapolis Colts

    2016 TDs: 8 | OTD: 5.5

    That is not a misprint; Turbin really did score eight touchdowns last season. He achieved the feat despite registering only 73 touches as Frank Gore's caddy. Incredibly, Turbin entered 2016 with three career touchdowns, zero career carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line and zero end zone targets. He vultured some work from Gore near the goal line, but that has been overstated for the most part. Turbin scored on all three of his carries from the opponent's 1-yard line and on four of his 11 additional tries inside the 10. His lone receiving score came on an end zone target, which happened to be one of his two targets within 20 yards of the end zone. Turbin will vulture a few more scores from Gore in 2017, but not nearly as much as last year. Gore, by the way, posted four rushing scores and a 6.4 rushing OTD.

    2017 Projection: 4

    Rishard Matthews | Tennessee Titans

    2016 TDs: 9 | OTD: 6.8

    Matthews wasn't a full-time player until midseason, but he still managed to score nine touchdowns on 65 receptions en route to finishing 22nd at the position in fantasy points. Matthews was afforded 12 end zone targets (he caught seven) after totaling nine during his first four seasons. His other two scores came from 2 yards out. Eric Decker and Corey Davis (both 6-foot-3) are now in the mix in Tennessee and are sure to handle plenty of work near the goal line.

    2017 Projection: 5

    Latavius Murray | Minnesota Vikings

    2016 TDs: 12 | OTD: 10.2

    Murray ran for 12 touchdowns last season, thanks to 16 carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (both were fifth-most at the position). That came after he totaled eight rushing scores and 11 carries inside the 5 during the first two seasons of his career. Murray may be asked to handle goal-line duties in Minnesota, but he is unlikely to come close to matching his 2016 production with rookie Dalvin Cook ticketed for a big role.

    2017 Projection: 4
     

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    Cam Newton's top-five fantasy quarterback potential
    KC Joyner
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/9/17

    Cam Newton is only two seasons removed from posting 389.1 fantasy points, a total that is the fifth highest among quarterbacks over the past 10 seasons. This spiked his fantasy average draft position (ADP) in 2016, but a point regression in that campaign has caused his ADP to fall to the low-tier QB1 level this season.

    It's understandable that fantasy owners don't expect a return to the nearly 400-point level, but many paths exist that could take Newton to the 300-point level -- or higher -- in 2017, likely placing him among the top five fantasy quarterbacks.


    The Panthers operate a vertically inclined passing attack

    Newton has never put the ball in the air more than 517 times in a season, but that relatively low attempt volume doesn't stop him from posting huge attempt totals at the vertical (aerials traveling 11 or more yards downfield) and stretch vertical (targets thrown 20 or more yards downfield) route depth levels.

    For example, Newton's 510 pass attempts last season ranked tied for 18th, but his 195 vertical attempts ranked fourth and his 66 stretch vertical attempts tied for sixth most. Newton has a cannon for an arm, and the Carolina Panthers have shown they want him to utilize that weapon as often as possible.

    Newton dominates subpar competition

    One of the most notable elements of Newton's 2015 MVP season is that he ranked eighth among quarterbacks in fantasy points (137.5) in Week 8. His turnaround occurred because he went from a somewhat difficult schedule in the first half of that campaign to an incredibly favorable schedule in the second half.

    From Week 9 to 17 of that season, Newton faced six opponents that ended the season ranked 22nd or lower in yards allowed per attempt (YPA). He really didn't fare that much better against those foes than the other quarterbacks who faced them that season, but the high volume of cream-puff opponents allowed Newton to rack up an incredible 251.6 fantasy points in just over half of a season.

    Newton's ability to crush overmatched foes is important because the Panthers once again have a schedule that is among the most favorable in the league. They face 10 teams that ranked 20th or lower in YPA last season and battle eight teams that ranked 23rd or worse in vertical YPA. Some of these teams have improved on last season's performance, but the sheer volume of potential foes with significant coverage weaknesses should give Newton ample opportunities to dominate subpar competition.

    Newton could be looking at a career high in pass attempts

    According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Newton attempted 35 screen passes last season, a total that ranked 21st in that category. This is a departure from earlier in his career, as Newton posted 217 screen-pass attempts from 2011 to 2014, the sixth-highest total in the league in that span. The lack of production on these plays last season probably had a lot to do with the decreased volume, as Newton's 4.4 YPA on screen passes ranked 26th.

    The addition of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel could dramatically increase both the quantity and quality of screen passes Newton throws this year. McCaffrey placed second among Power 5 running backs in screen pass receptions over the past two seasons (39), and Samuel ranked tied for fourth in the Big Ten in screen pass receptions last season (14).

    McCaffrey's 7.4 yards per reception pace on screen passes placed eighth among Power 5 running backs with 20 such receptions in the past two seasons. Samuel wasn't quite as accomplished here, but his 5.7-yard average last season indicates he is capable of improving the Panthers' screen-pass game.

    If these two convince Carolina's coaching staff to call for more screens, it could add as many as 20 to 30 more short pass attempts to Newton's bottom line and possibly lead to him posting a career high in attempts this season.

    Don't worry about the rushing decline

    Last season, Newton posted career lows in rushing attempts (90), rushing yards (359) and yards per carry (4.0), while tying a career low in rushing touchdowns (5).

    This makes it sound like Newton's ground production collapsed, but Newton still scored 65.9 fantasy points on rushing plays, a total that ranked second among quarterbacks. Newton may yet see more of a rushing drop-off, as the Panthers organization does all it can to shield him from defensive contact, but if he manages to post only 50 fantasy points on rushing plays, Newton will still be one of the most prolific rushing quarterbacks in fantasy football.

    The offensive line could be much improved

    Carolina's offensive line had more than its share of blocking issues last season, but one analysis shows that things should be trending upward in this area. The Panthers ranked 16th in my 2017 projected offensive line performance rankings in part because returning four starters helped them earn a B-plus grade in the very important stability/consistency metric. The addition of tackle Taylor Moton, a powerful prospect who could provide immediate run-blocking improvement, also will help this group play to a much higher level than it did last season.

    Injury caveat

    There is one caveat of note: Newton's offseason shoulder surgery. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter recently reported that the Panthers are comfortable with where Newton is in regard to his recovery, so this may not be of much concern, but it is worth keeping an eye on.

    Bottom line

    Most quarterbacks don't have the capacity to lead the league in scoring. Newton has done it before and has the talent to do it again, but even if he falls short of that potential, he is still one of five or six quarterbacks who have a reasonable chance of posting 300 or more points. That gives him much higher value than his current ADP in ESPN leagues, so consider Newton a tremendous upside candidate in the middle rounds of a draft.
     

  9. #9  
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    Expect more touchdowns from these players in 2017, including Greg Olsen
    Mije Clay
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/9/17

    This is going to be a mouthful, but bear with me for a minute.

    From 2007 to 2015, there were 180 instances in which a wide receiver or tight end scored fewer than five touchdowns on 70-plus offensive looks (carries plus targets) before managing at least 70 looks the next season. Of those 180 instances, 125 times (69.4 percent) the player scored more touchdowns the next season. Focusing in on the 64 players in that group who scored fewer than three touchdowns during the first season, 56 of them (87.5 percent) scored more touchdowns the next season. Of the 23 who scored either one or zero touchdowns, 22 of them (95.7 percent) found the end zone more often the next season. Jason Avant (2011-12) was the only exception.

    We see similar results if we run this test on running backs. In that same 2007-15 window, there were 50 instances in which a back scored fewer than eight touchdowns on 200-plus looks before managing 200 looks again the next season. Of those 50 instances, 37 times (74 percent) the player scored more touchdowns the next season. Interestingly, there were seven backs who scored fewer than three touchdowns in the first year but each scored more often the next year. Of that group, only Darren McFadden (2014-15) failed to score at least five touchdowns the next season, and the average second-year touchdown total was 7.2.

    If you skipped all that, or just tuned out while scanning over the letters and numbers, the point here is simple: NFL players tend to bounce back -- often in a big way -- when they post an unusually low touchdown number the prior season.

    A careful examination of the 2016 usage for each of the players below tells us that we should expect an increase in scoring production this season.

    In this piece, I'll be referencing OTD, which is a statistic that weighs every carry/target and converts the data into one number that indicates a player's scoring opportunity. Put another way, it's how many touchdowns a league-average player would have scored with the exact same opportunity as the player shown.

    Be sure to also check out the 16 players who will score fewer touchdowns this season.

    Note that this study is limited to regular-season rushing and receiving data.

    Greg Olsen | Carolina Panthers

    2016 TDs: 3 | OTD: 6.6

    Olsen entered 2016 having managed at least five touchdowns during each of the previous eight seasons. Despite racking up a career-high 127 targets, Olsen found the end zone only three times. He registered 10 end zone targets (fourth most among tight ends) for the fourth time in his career, which includes three of the past four years. Olsen caught two of those 10 targets and ran 42 yards on his other score. Olsen's résumé and last year's usage suggest the low touchdown total was a fluke. Expect him to rebound in 2017.

    2017 Projection: 6

    Spencer Ware | Kansas City Chiefs

    2016 TDs: 5 | OTD: 7.5

    Ware found the end zone on only three of his 214 rushing attempts last season. That's after he scored on six of 72 carries in 2015. Ware ranked 16th in the league with nine carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line, but scored on only two. He scored on five of seven tries in the same area in 2015. Ware did bail out his owners a bit by catching a pair of touchdowns (1.2 receiving OTD). He scored from 3 and 48 yards out despite only two targets while inside the opponent's 17-yard line. Nonetheless, Ware was unlucky overall in the touchdown department and his scoring rate is likely to rebound in 2017. Of course, his overall production will depend on whether or not he's able to fend off rookie Kareem Hunt for touches.

    2017 Projection: 8

    Marvin Jones | Detroit Lions

    2016 TDs: 4 | OTD: 7.0

    Remember back in 2013 when Jones defied logic and scored on 10 of his 51 receptions? He had a 4.7 OTD that season and was about as obvious a lock for touchdown regression as you'll find. Labeled by many as having a "knack" for finding the end zone, he proved to be yet another example that touchdown scoring is not a skill, but rather a luxury of opportunity. Of course, Jones has taken the regression to the mean a bit too far. He's scored exactly four touchdowns each of the past two seasons despite a 5.5 OTD in 2015 and a 7.0 OTD last season. Since catching all nine of his end zone targets during that bizarre 2013 season, Jones has caught just three of 18 during his past two campaigns. That includes two of 10 in 2016, his first season with Detroit. Jones' usage suggests he's a candidate for a bounce back in 2017, just don't expect a return to 2013.

    2017 Projection: 6

    Todd Gurley | Los Angeles Rams

    2016 TDs: 6 | OTD: 7.6

    Gurley was a major disappointment last season, and his 3.2 yards per carry was only the beginning of it. Despite registering the fifth-most carries (278) and 12th-most targets (57) among running backs, Gurley found the end zone only six times and finished 15th in fantasy points. Gurley scored 10 touchdowns despite a 6.3 OTD as a rookie, which made him a candidate for regression to the mean, but he clearly overshot it by a bit. Last season, he scored on four of six carries from the opponent's 1-yard line, and his other touchdowns came from 3 and 24 yards out. With little competition for snaps, Gurley is well positioned for another massive workload in 2017. Expect the touchdowns to follow his hefty volume.

    2017 Projection: 10

    Alshon Jeffery | Philadelphia Eagles

    2016 TDs: 2 | OTD: 5.1

    This is the second consecutive year in which Jeffery has found himself on this list. The former Bear has scored six touchdowns despite a 12.0 OTD over the past two seasons. He's actually fallen short of his OTD during each of his first five seasons in the league, though the gap between his 2012-14 touchdown total (20) and OTD (22.9) is much closer. Jeffery has proven to be heavily utilized near the goal line. He's reached double-digits in end zone targets each of the past four seasons. That includes 2015, when he ranked seventh at the position with 16 despite missing seven games. During the 2013-14 seasons, only Brandon Marshall (43) and Calvin Johnson (38) managed more end zone targets than Jeffery's 37. Jeffery now heads to Philadelphia, where he figures to act as Carson Wentz's go-to target near the end zone. His touchdown underperformance (as it relates to OTD) may seem like a trend, but it just as well could be traced to bad luck (a coin that comes up heads five consecutive times still has 50-50 odds of turning up tails on the next flip after all).

    2017 Projection: 6

    Brandon Marshall | New York Giants

    2016 TDs: 3 | OTD: 6.8

    Marshall has been such a force in the touchdown department during his career that it's almost hard to believe he made this list. Marshall ranked seventh among wide receivers with 15 end zone targets last season (he caught just three), which marks his second-worst finish in the category in the past 10 years. In fact, Marshall has paced the position in end zone targets four of the past six years and he's seen an NFL-high 180 since 2007. Now with the Giants, it's fair to assume Eli Manning will be the next in a long line of quarterbacks to feed Marshall near the goal line.

    2017 Projection: 6

    Jermaine Kearse | Seattle Seahawks

    2016 TDs: 1 | OTD: 5.4

    Kearse has the distinction of owning the largest gap between his touchdown total and receiving OTD during the 2016 season. He racked up seven end zone targets for the third season in a row and finished top 40 among wideouts in the category each of those seasons. He caught only one of the seven end zone looks last season, but was targeted 10 additional times while inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Kearse is a good bet for a reduced role with surging Paul Richardson and rookie Amara Darboh now in the mix, but the veteran is still likely to receive in the range of 35-45 targets.

    2017 Projection: 3

    Julian Edelman | New England Patriots

    2016 TDs: 3 | OTD: 5.7

    Edelman's 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame doesn't exactly scream "touchdown machine," but he certainly should have delivered more than three scores last season. Interestingly enough, Edelman caught a career-high seven touchdowns in only nine games in 2015. His 4.7 OTD that year suggested his scoring pace was unsustainable, but -- as is becoming a theme in this piece -- he overcorrected a bit in 2016. Edelman caught one of eight end zone targets last season after hauling in 12 of 25 (48 percent) during his first seven seasons. Edelman has never finished better than 24th at the position in end zone targets, but sees enough volume in a high-scoring offense that he's a strong bet to find the end zone more often in 2017.

    2017 Projection: 6
     

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    How far should suspended Elliott drop in fantasy drafts?
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/11/17

    Fantasy football owners with Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott already on their teams, whether they had already drafted for 2017 or had him secured in a dynasty or keeper format, were dealt a jolt Friday afternoon when the second-year player was levied a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Elliott is expected to appeal, but for now we must assume the talented player who finished his rookie season second in season scoring at his position and fifth overall won’t be eligible to play until Week 8, since the Dallas bye falls in that span.

    There’s a value to every player and certainly is with Elliott, but in this case there’s a really good chance I’ll have no shares of Elliott on my teams, because I simply do not have interest in waiting for half a season -- remember, December is mainly playoffs in fantasy leagues -- for anyone in which the acquisition cost will be significant. And Elliott’s price is going to remain too high because nobody knows in August how they’ll feel waiting in October. Elliott was obviously super productive as a rookie and there was little reason to believe his statistics couldn’t be repeated. But now, of course, they can’t be.

    In fantasy we sometimes set aside ethical reasons to avoid a player accused of heinous acts, but on statistics alone I still struggled with leaving Elliott among my top-20 running backs at all, and the reason he makes it is because I can’t find 20 running backs to place in my top-20 in the first place. There’s just no depth. There’s obvious uncertainty at the back end of that crew, but compare Elliott to 34-year-old Indianapolis Colts veteran Frank Gore, for example. In Weeks 8 and after, of course we’d all prefer Elliott. He’s a better player. His team runs the ball effectively. He’s not 34. But those first seven weeks are a problem and Gore did finish the 2016 season as fantasy’s No. 12 running back, and in PPR!

    Of course, others would argue the first seven weeks aren’t a problem if you’ve got Elliott’s backup, and while former Oakland Raiders lightning rod Darren McFadden has certainly disappointed in the past, he rushed for 1,089 yards in 2015 for these Cowboys. Dallas has an altered offensive line from last season, but it figures to remain elite. McFadden will see his average live-draft position skyrocket this week, as he’s a potential RB1 for six games, but after that, he’s not so valuable. Deep down I just don’t want to deal with this in a fantasy league.

    Some will ask how this is different than what occurred with Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell last season and the answer is he was suspended for the first three games and that’s it. Bell is more risk than people realize with a top-2 overall pick because of the threat of more and lengthier suspensions and also he’s dealt with injuries, but that was still only three games, and three weeks. No teams would be serving a bye week by then, so the pool of options was far greater. This is potentially six games and seven weeks and byes.

    For now, Elliott stays in my top-20 running backs just ahead of Gore, who has quite a few difficult defenses to face in the first six weeks, but that’s the line I’m comfortable with. Yes, I would draft a Cleveland Browns running back over Elliott. Yes, I would select three rookie running backs before him. It’s Round 5 and to be honest, I hope Elliott is already off the board in my leagues by then, but the value will be too great to ignore and you’d better hit on a surprise running back or two to get you through the first seven weeks. It’s certainly possible.

    McFadden moves up into Ameer Abdullah territory for me, not quite as a top-30 running back but as a player we can probably trust early on, and after that, who knows. After all, the Detroit Lions running back is rarely healthy, but appears so today. It’s Round 8 or 9 by then, and we should all take chances by that point. I do think McFadden is clearly ahead of Alfred Morris on the depth chart. Perhaps Dallas was planning all along to have second-year quarterback Dak Prescott throw the football more, lessening Elliott’s touches in the process, but to answer another question, no, the Elliott suspension does not make me adjust Prescott’s ranking positive or negative.
     

  11. #11  
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    Watkins, Matthews find new, not necessarily better, teams
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/11/17

    Several big-name wide receivers in the final year of their rookie contracts were traded Friday afternoon, with the Buffalo Bills sending a top-20 option to the Los Angeles Rams and acquiring a lesser choice from the Philadelphia Eagles, and of course there were draft picks and defensive players and other stuff involved. For fantasy owners, however, more than Sammy Watkins and Jordan Matthews were affected.

    Let’s start with Watkins, now with the Rams: I don’t mind revealing that he was going to be featured prominently on my “do not draft” list, and this move pretty much seals the deal. Nobody can argue about how talented he is, but foot injuries have certainly held him back and not only forced many missed games but also made him a major risk moving ahead. The best predictor of future injury is past injury, and Watkins, entering his fourth year, is one of the prime wide receiver candidates for such a designation.

    So we’ve established health is a concern, and now he goes to a franchise with a sophomore quarterback who really struggled as a rookie. Perhaps Jared Goff will be great and all bust labels will be forgotten for the No. 1 overall selection. Perhaps. But this season the Rams are expected, with their improved offensive line, to lean heavily on running back Todd Gurley, which would be wise. Watkins remains chock full of upside, and he should be extremely motivated in a contract year, but receivers need healthy feet, and a solid quarterback would be nice. Watkins was already outside my top 20 wide receivers. Now he moves a bit further out.

    As for other Rams who drop down the depth chart, Tavon Austin has been in the league four seasons and has never approached 600 receiving yards. He couldn't have been high on any fantasy lists. Watkins will be reunited with former Bills teammate Robert Woods, who was going to be the most productive Rams wide receiver and might still be, if he can play all 16 games. Actually, Woods should have an easier time with defenses now that Watkins is around, but this still isn't a strong passing offense by any means.

    The Bills pick up Matthews, a helpful slot option who has been productive but would have seen his targets drop after the Eagles added Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and several youngsters in the draft. He goes to Buffalo, where underrated Tyrod Taylor is the quarterback, and joins other slot options. The Bills drafted Zay Jones and signed Anquan Boldin. Well, they certainly have slot duties covered! Matthews showed he couldn’t effectively play on the outside last season. Jones might be fine there. Boldin might be fine there. I see Matthews with similar value as before the trade, perhaps getting a small boost, but he’s been dealing with knee problems and remains a risk. Frankly, Jones is the Buffalo wide receiver I want the most now, but he’s still a rookie and they are dangerous to rely on. Jones is not among my top 40 wide receivers, and neither is Matthews.

    The Eagles were desperate for cornerback help, and they added a young, cost effective option in Ronald Darby, believing it wouldn’t be difficult to replace Matthews in the slot. I concur with that assessment. Disregard the underwhelming numbers former first-round pick Nelson Agholor supplied his first two seasons. He’s certainly no lock for stardom, but I think he was simply deployed wrong. Now he won’t be. This doesn’t move Agholor into a sure-fire top-50 wide receiver, but the case can be made for a PPR format. I’d still choose Matthews over him, but it’s not crazy to disagree. The Eagles also really like rookie Mack Hollins, and while he’s still not worth drafting in a 10-team format, the fact this deep threat becomes the top backup to Jeffrey and Smith with Agholor moving inside aids his value and makes him a deep league speculative selection.
     

  12. #12  
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    WR ranking tiers: Finding mid-draft sleepers key
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/12/17

    A year ago at this time, wide receiver was the hot fantasy football position, with high-end options to draft before any running backs and enough depth that it was pretty much assumed one’s flex spot wouldn’t be a running back. Oh, how things change! Sure, wide receiver remains a strong fantasy position, of course, but several high-end options have become question marks, and by the middle rounds, it just doesn’t feel the same as last year, creating more balance with the never-forgotten running backs.

    As a result, a tiered system for wide receivers seems even more relevant than a year ago, when one could do little wrong and end up with usable options no matter what. Perhaps that’s still the case to some degree, but with the many rookie running backs and several new veterans likely finding immediate opportunity, it’s more of a mix. Regardless, one might notice more drop-off from tier to tier at wide receiver. I certainly did. We’ve covered quarterback and running back and we continue now with wide receiver.
    Tier 1: Top of Round 1

    Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

    Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

    Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    The emergence of Arizona’s David Johnson as a monster pass-catcher and the fact Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell isn’t burdened by a suspension has them generally as the top two overall selections, and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott was often in the same tier prior to news of his suspension, but then it’s this fantastic foursome of speedy, reliable, consistent options. Evans joined the tier after getting back into double-digit touchdowns. It’s tough to complain about these players; Brown did miss a game last season and his catches and yards fell, but there’s little reason for worry. Jones fell short of 16 games yet again and lost his offensive coordinator this offseason, but remains elite.

    Tier 2: Late Round 1

    Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers

    A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

    T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

    Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

    No real surprises here, unless one includes Thomas, who excelled as a rookie and should see even more targets since the other starting wide receiver he played with was dealt to New England. Thomas and Drew Brees figure to put up major numbers. Nelson’s first season post-ACL tear saw elite production, though pessimists can point to a steep reduction in yards per target and advanced age as worries.

    Tier 3: Rounds 2-3

    Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks

    Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos

    Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys

    Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

    DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

    There have been developments in this tier since last season. First of all, Bryant, great as he is, has played in 22 games the past two seasons. Doesn’t mean he can’t play all 16 this season, but there’s a trend here. By the way, it’s not mean to call him a WR2. Some might also be surprised by Hopkins’ inclusion, coming off his awful season, but he’s not awful. Here’s to hoping quarterback Tom Savage is more competent than Brock Osweiler. And Cooper gets a lofty tier despite the fact he hasn’t been his own team’s top wide receiver either of his two seasons. Expectations are high.

    Tier 4: Round 4

    Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

    Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

    Michael Crabtree, Raiders

    Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

    Brandin Cooks, Patriots

    Now we start seeing teammates, starting with two Tom Brady options and the second -- or first, really -- Derek Carr target. Cooks will put up numbers for sure, probably fewer catches than Edelman but likely more scores. And remember, we’re talking about PPR formats, so mock Fitzgerald all you like for being 72 years old, but in this scoring system, since he led the NFL in receptions and certainly can do so again, he was the No. 11 wide receiver. He and Carson Palmer aren’t quite done yet. A return to the slot could also finally get Tate, who has three consecutive seasons of 90-plus catches, into triple digits. I mean, the Lions can’t rely on the run! C’mon!

    Tier 5: Top of Round 5

    Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles

    Terrelle Pryor Sr., Washington Redskins

    Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Davante Adams, Packers

    This is the tier in which the concerns really begin, because these players are likely to be selected as definite fantasy starters, and look, they probably will be. After all, Jeffery and Robinson have proved to be awesome. Pryor and Adams did it last year. But ... Jeffery misses games. Pryor switched teams. Robinson’s quarterback is woefully erratic. Adams, like Pryor, has done it only once. I rank them in this order, and as flex options at the least, but it hardly means they’re as safe as we want them to be.

    Tier 6: Round 5

    Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins

    Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

    Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos

    Sammy Watkins, Los Angeles Rams

    Each would presume to deserve a more glamorous tiered fate, based on rankings and production in prior seasons, so I admit they could be considered steals at this point. Landry doesn’t score many touchdowns, but he catches many passes, and Jay Cutler doesn’t need to be in particularly good shape to keep Landry busy. With Allen, it’s all about health, or lack thereof. Sanders just kinda gets forgotten for WR2 purposes, but he was nearly as productive as his teammate Thomas last season. Watkins loses value in the trade from Buffalo since the quarterback play with his new team is iffy at best, and Watkins still deals with foot problems.

    Tier 7: Round 6

    Jamison Crowder, Redskins

    Donte Moncrief, Colts

    Willie Snead, Saints

    Tyrell Williams, Chargers

    Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings

    Like previous tiers, there’s a relative mix of upside and reliability here, which will be a theme moving ahead. Williams is a fellow to watch as we await more injury updates on his teammate with the same last name, the top-10 overall pick who might not even play in 2017.

    Tier 8: Round 7

    Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers

    Brandon Marshall, Giants

    Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers

    Quarterback play will be a key for these guys to a large degree. The 49ers expect to have a better passing game than 2016. How can’t they? The Panthers believe Cam Newton is healthy and Benjamin, who might not be in the best shape of his life, can return to his rookie numbers. With this ranking and tier, I tend to disagree. And Marshall has more than proved himself over the years, but it’s going to be tough for another Giants playmaker to be great with Beckham demanding and deserving targets.

    Tier 9: Round 8

    DeSean Jackson, Buccaneers

    Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

    Martavis Bryant, Steelers

    It just kind of worked out this way that the three receivers perhaps most capable of making super-big plays downfield but lacking volume get thrown together in the same tier. What a coincidence! Jackson joins another team and his breakaway speed and deep-threat presence is, as with the others, hardly questioned, but these are PPR tiers and in nine seasons Jackson has topped the relatively low bar of 62 receptions once. It’s not likely to double this season. Hill was stunning as a rookie with his double-digit touchdowns, but his quarterback didn’t find him enough and certainly not enough downfield. And oh yeah, the touchdowns will be tough to reproduce. We’ve seen Bryant marvel as well, when he’s eligible to perform, but if he’s not piling on touchdowns, those in PPR formats likely will be disappointed.

    Tier 10: Round 9

    Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore Ravens

    John Brown, Cardinals

    Perhaps they don’t really warrant their own special tier, since there’s not much other than durability concerns tying them together, but for me they represent the end to my sleeper flex options. Maclin should be better than last year. Brown should be better as well. We’ve seen them do it. Opportunity is there. Eh, maybe it’s just me.

    Tier 10: Revenge of the Titans

    Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

    Rishard Matthews, Titans

    Eric Decker, Titans

    Ask three fantasy team owners on the street which of these Titans they are most likely to select and one might get three different answers. Of course, more than one might not be aware Decker is a Titan. I placed the rookie first and the proven touchdown guy with injury concerns last but can be swayed in any direction. After all, it’s Round 9. Why not?

    Tier 11: Rounds 11-12

    Cameron Meredith, Chicago Bears

    Adam Thielen, Vikings

    Mike Wallace, Ravens

    Kenny Britt, Cleveland Browns

    John Ross, Bengals

    Zay Jones, Bills

    Jordan Matthews, Bills

    Randall Cobb, Packers

    Corey Coleman, Browns

    DeVante Parker, Dolphins

    Pick a name, any name. These guys aren’t sure things, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re bereft of upside. After all, these are the first WR options for the Bears and Browns, teams lacking, shall we kindly point out, Hall of Fame quarterback play, and there’s reasonable debate whether Thielen, Wallace and Parker will be the most productive options for their teams. Hey, we still don’t have a Jet!

    Tier 12: Rounds 13-14

    Anquan Boldin, Bills

    Marvin Jones Jr., Lions

    Josh Doctson, Redskins

    J.J. Nelson, Cardinals

    Sterling Shepard, Giants

    Curtis Samuel, Panthers

    Ted Ginn Jr., Saints

    We start to see more rookies by this point, and it’s always possible Samuel and second-year guy Doctson are future stars. Perhaps even 2017 stars. For that reason, depending on the construction of your wide receiver corps, one might decide guys like Boldin, lacking upside, should be left on free agency. If Samuel goes statistically nuts in Week 1, it might be too late to acquire him.

    Tier 13: The end, be it final rounds or free agency

    Robby Anderson, New York Jets

    Mike Williams, Chargers

    Kevin White, Bears

    Torrey Smith, Eagles

    Braxton Miller, Texans

    Kenny Stills, Dolphins

    Taylor Gabriel, Falcons

    Robert Woods, Rams

    Tavon Austin, Rams

    Tyler Lockett, Seahawks

    Allen Hurns, Jaguars

    We have a Jet! Hey, someone has to catch the passes. We also have the final top-10 wide receiver from the NFL draft in Williams showing up, but the issue is whether he will show up on the field. Could be 16 games. Could be six. Could be zero. Just make sure to secure him in dynasty formats. If asked for a potential breakout selection I’ll probably go with Miller. Big body, golden opportunity and the quarterback play has to be better.
     

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    Predicting fantasy QB over/unders for all 32 teams
    ESPN INSIDER

    To celebrate the kickoff of the ESPN Fantasy Football Marathon, this week NFL Nation reporters will be giving their fantasy predictions for the top offensive players on the teams they cover.

    ESPN fantasy football analyst Mike Clay provided the over/unders for this exercise -- using his 2017 projections -- and each Nation reporter was given one projection for each position on which to give a prediction.

    NFC EAST


    Dallas Cowboys

    Over/under nine interceptions for Dak Prescott?

    Prediction: Under. Prescott is using training camp to test his boundaries in risk-taking this summer, but when it comes to real games, he won't take unnecessary risks. He has too many receivers who can win early on routes. Will he go lower than last year's interception total of four? No, but he will have fewer than nine. -- Todd Archer


    New York Giants

    Over/under 28 touchdown passes for Eli Manning?

    Prediction: Over. Manning has topped 30 touchdowns in two of his three years while working with Ben McAdoo in the current offense. Even in a bad season last year, Manning barely was under this number, throwing for 26 touchdowns. He will bounce back personally and get over the number while working with vastly improved weapons. -- Jordan Raanan



    Philadelphia Eagles

    Over/under 174 rushing yards for Carson Wentz?

    Prediction: Over. The Eagles coaching staff was conservative with the amount it allowed Wentz to run as a rookie, especially early in the season. He finished with 150 rushing yards. As his trust and his familiarity with the NFL game grew, the Eagles deployed him more as a running threat. Wentz will always look to pass first, but he can use his legs as a weapon when need be. You should see him rack up more yards on the ground in Year 2. -- Tim McManus


    Washington Redskins

    Over/under 4,711 passing yards for Kirk Cousins?


    Prediction: Under. After throwing for a franchise-record 4,917 yards last season, it's hard to assume he'll get there again, after he lost two proven receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. And if tight end Jordan Reed remains on the physically unable to perform list for any length of time, it also could affect Cousins' chances to exceed this number. Another factor: Will Josh Doctson produce for a full season? The key for Cousins' success won't be the yardage total, but his red zone success. -- John Keim

    NFC NORTH


    Chicago Bears

    Over/under 12 starts for Mike Glennon?

    Prediction: Under: Chicago's starting job still belongs to Glennon, who is guaranteed $16 million this year, but Mitchell Trubisky's performance in the preseason opener makes the quarterback depth chart a whole lot more interesting. Trubisky will eventually be the guy, and that might happen sooner rather than later. Plus, can Glennon stay healthy? Almost everyone in Chicago gets hurt. There are too many reasons not to take the under here. -- Jeff Dickerson


    Detroit Lions

    Over/under 28 touchdown passes for Matthew Stafford?

    Prediction: Over: Matthew Stafford has more passing options than he did last year, even with Anquan Boldin heading to Buffalo. Eric Ebron should receive more end zone targets with Boldin gone, and rookie Kenny Golladay is the tall receiver with a good catch radius that Stafford hasn't had since Calvin Johnson retired. (But no, Golladay is no Johnson.) Add in tight end Darren Fells, who is another tall red zone target, and two healthy pass-catching backs in Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, and Stafford should be over 30 touchdown passes for the second time in three seasons. -- Michael Rothstein


    Green Bay Packers

    Over/under 35 touchdown passes for Aaron Rodgers?

    Prediction: Over: He has topped that mark in two of the past three seasons, and now he has an even bigger -- literally -- red zone threat in tight end Martellus Bennett. The 6-foot-6 veteran quickly has built a chemistry with Rodgers during training camp that should pay off, especially in the red zone. -- Rob Demovsky


    Minnesota Vikings

    Over/under 3,797 passing yards for Sam Bradford?


    Prediction: Over. Bradford topped that figure last season while missing one start and finishing the season with the NFL's lowest average of air yards per attempt (6.24). The Vikings will run more often, and with more production, this season after drafting Dalvin Cook and signing veteran Latavius Murray. But Bradford should be able to compensate for anything he loses to the run game by getting bigger chunks downfield, which is a big priority for this scheme. -- Kevin Seifert

    NFC SOUTH


    Atlanta Falcons

    Over/under 32 touchdown passes for Matt Ryan?

    Prediction: Over. Ryan had 38 last season and top target Julio Jones missed two games. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian plans to utilize Jones more in the red zone, which should create more scoring opportunities for Ryan. Plus, the emergence of Austin Hooper as a red zone threat, the sure-handed play of Mohamed Sanu and the abilities of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as receivers -- not to mention wide receiver Taylor Gabriel as a deep threat -- gives Ryan so many options. -- Vaughn McClure


    Carolina Panthers

    Over/under 29 total touchdowns for Cam Newton?

    Prediction: Under: You'd think this was a layup with all the new toys around Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP. But even as a dual-threat quarterback, he has fallen below 29 total touchdowns in three of his six seasons. That he is coming off shoulder surgery and expected to have fewer called runs means his rushing touchdown total should be down. The only way he tops 29 is if first-round pick Christian McCaffrey turns into a scoring machine on short passes. -- David Newton


    New Orleans Saints

    Over/under 4,889 passing yards for Drew Brees?

    Prediction: Over. This estimate will probably come close -- but it would mark the lowest per-game average for Brees since 2010. I know we will see a drop-off from the 38-year-old at some point. But there's no reason to think it's imminent. He just led the NFL (for the seventh time) with 5,208 yards last season -- the second highest total of his career. Perhaps the Saints will try to run the ball a little more after adding Adrian Peterson to join Mark Ingram. But they've tried to improve their run game often in the past -- and they always wind up learning on their bread and butter. -- Mike Triplett


    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Over/under 4,244 passing yards for Jameis Winston?


    Prediction: Over. Winston has Mike Evans, who has three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards. Winston also has DeSean Jackson, whose 17.71 yards per catch is the most by an NFL receiver since 2008. Both of those receivers live off making big plays downfield. Last season, Winston passed for 4,090 yards, even though a number of his receivers were injured, including Vincent Jackson. There is every reason to believe he can eclipse that and get to 4,244 this season. -- Jenna Laine

    NFC WEST


    Arizona Cardinals

    Over/under 4,343 passing yards for Carson Palmer?

    Prediction: Over. Palmer had 4,233 passing yards last season without a productive Michael Floyd, without a healthy John Brown and without an injured Jaron Brown. Floyd is gone and the Browns are healthy, but the Cardinals have added depth to their receiving corps with rookie Chad Williams and veterans Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Ross. They also have David Johnson, who had 879 receiving yards last season and is primed to improve that number to 1,000-plus yards. -- Josh Weinfuss


    Los Angeles Rams

    Over/under 17 interceptions for Jared Goff?

    Prediction: Under. Slightly. Goff, 22, is coming off a catastrophic rookie season in which he threw seven interceptions in seven games. But he is far more set up for success this year. His offensive line will be greatly improved now that Andrew Whitworth has replaced Greg Robinson at left tackle, and a coaching staff led by Sean McVay is far more adept at coaching quarterbacks than a staff led by Jeff Fisher. With Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, Goff will have some better weapons that should make the game easier on him. -- Alden Gonzalez


    San Francisco 49ers

    Over/under 16 touchdown passes for Brian Hoyer?

    Prediction: Over. The question here is whether Hoyer, who has battled injuries in his career, can stay healthy enough to reach this number. Yes, he only has surpassed it once in his career, but this is his team and he's clearly comfortable in Kyle Shanahan's offense and has been sharp throughout camp. Colin Kaepernick threw for 16 scores last season for the Niners, despite not starting a full season and with a worse supporting cast and scheme. Hoyer should be able to top it. -- Nick Wagoner


    Seattle Seahawks

    Over/under 419 rushing yards for Russell Wilson?


    Prediction: Over. Wilson has rushed for more than this number in four of five NFL seasons. The only exception was last season, when he battled through three different injuries and had limited mobility. Wilson is down to 208 pounds after playing last year at 225. He has been moving great at training camp and should be good for more than 500 rushing yards in 2017. -- Sheil Kapadia

    AFC EAST



    Buffalo Bills

    Over/under 22 total touchdowns for Tyrod Taylor?

    Prediction: Over. Taylor threw for 17 touchdowns last season (and scored 23 total) with a depleted group of wide receivers. Even after the trade of Sammy Watkins to the Rams, I believe Taylor can match his output from last season. Anquan Boldin, who scored eight touchdowns and was Matthew Stafford's top red zone target last season, will play a part in getting Taylor to at least 22 touchdowns. Will that be enough to save Taylor's job in 2018? Maybe not. -- Mike Rodak


    Miami Dolphins

    Over/under 23 touchdown passes for Jay Cutler?

    Prediction: Over. Cutler has more talent at the skill positions in Miami, including receivers Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills, than he did in Chicago. The key here will be staying healthy: Cutler hasn't played 16 games since 2009 and is coming off shoulder surgery. -- ESPN.com staff


    New England Patriots

    Over/under 4,728 passing yards for Tom Brady?

    Prediction: Over. Brady had 4,770 yards in 2015 without the level of talent he is throwing to this season. In 2007, when the Patriots had the most prolific passing attack in the NFL, Brady had 4,806 passing yards. It could be close this year, but why not go all-in? -- Mike Reiss


    New York Jets

    Over/under seven starts for Christian Hackenberg?


    Prediction: Over. Hackenberg won't start the season -- Josh McCown will -- but his ascension is inevitable. The organization wants to get a long look at Hackenberg before the 2018 draft, and that means more than seven starts. Concerned about his confidence, they don't want to rush him. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise if the change happens in Week 4 or Week 5. He must learn to get rid of the ball more quickly or else he will leave himself vulnerable to injury. -- Rich Cimini

    AFC NORTH


    Baltimore Ravens

    Over/under 642 passing attempts for Joe Flacco?

    Prediction: Under. Flacco has only thrown more than that number of attempts once in his nine-year career, and the Ravens repeatedly have said that running the ball has become a point of emphasis. Plus, with the Ravens' defense, Flacco and the offense shouldn't be forced to throw the ball to play catch-up too often. If all goes according to plan, Flacco should throw the ball around 550 times. -- Jamison Hensley


    Cincinnati Bengals

    Over/under 23 touchdown passes for Andy Dalton?

    Prediction: Over. But probably not by much. This might be a bit of an optimistic prediction with the state of the offensive line and the fact that Dalton threw only 18 touchdowns last season, but Dalton managed 27 touchdowns in 2012, despite being sacked 46 times. With A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert healthy again and some new offensive toys in Joe Mixon and John Ross, Dalton will probably be passing more than ever. -- Katherine Terrell


    Cleveland Browns

    Over/under 10 starts for DeShone Kizer?

    Prediction: Under. This is a tough guess at this point of camp, and at this point it, is a guess. But even after an impressive preseason opener, coach Hue Jackson was not ready to commit to Kizer as the starter. The way he's playing, though, Kizer will at some point be the starter. The timing of that is up for debate, but it won't be early enough for Kizer to stay healthy enough to start double-digit games. -- Pat McManamon


    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Over/under 4,214 passing yards for Ben Roethlisberger?


    Prediction: Over. This is contingent on health. When Roethlisberger is in the lineup, he has averaged 302 passing yards per game since 2014, or 4,842 yards over 16 games. There's always a chance Roethlisberger misses a few games, but he's healthy now and playing with his best playmaking arsenal. Yards are rarely the fantasy issue with Big Ben. The touchdown numbers are more unpredictable. -- Jeremy Fowler

    AFC SOUTH


    Houston Texans

    Over/under 10 starts for Deshaun Watson?

    Prediction: Under. It's easy to see a world where Watson surpasses 10 starts, but that would likely involve Tom Savage getting hurt or playing much worse than he did on Wednesday night in the preseason opener. While that certainly could happen -- Savage had been injured in each of his three previous seasons, and he has not thrown an NFL touchdown pass -- it seems more likely that if Watson starts, it will be about midway through the season. -- Sarah Barshop


    Indianapolis Colts

    Over/under 29 touchdown passes for Andrew Luck?

    Prediction: Over. I need to preface the over part by assuming Luck plays at least 14 games this season, because he remains out after a January surgery on his right shoulder. The Colts should easily finish in the top 10 in offense this season with a healthy Luck. He has all his top skill positions players back, and this could be the best group of receivers that he has played with in his career in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Chester Rogers and Phillip Dorsett. It also should help that this is the first time the Colts return their core group of offensive linemen from the previous season for the first time in Luck's six-year career. -- Mike Wells


    Jacksonville Jaguars

    Over/under 540 passing attempts for Blake Bortles?

    Prediction: Under. That's just under 34 attempts per game, and the Jaguars don't want to throw the ball that much. Bortles has averaged 37 pass attempts per game during his three-year career, and Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin want to cut that to fewer than 30 per game. That's why the Jaguars drafted running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall. They want to play ball-control and rely on defense and special teams to shorten games. The defense should be good enough to keep most games close enough that they don't have to abandon the run. -- Mike DiRocco


    Tennessee Titans

    Over/under 29 total touchdowns for Marcus Mariota?


    Prediction: Over. Mariota had 28 touchdowns through 15 games last season. If healthy, and that's an important caveat, Mariota is in a great position to surpass that mark. He has stronger red zone receiving weapons with Eric Decker and Corey Davis to go along with the consistency of Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews. -- Cameron Wolfe

    AFC WEST


    Denver Broncos

    Over/under seven starts for Paxton Lynch?

    Prediction: Under -- unless Lynch roars through the combined workouts against the 49ers this week and shows composure in the pocket in his preseason start on Saturday. There is no question he can still win the job. But unless he rallies, Trevor Siemian takes a major stumble or the Broncos decision-makers simply push him into the lineup, Lynch likely won't hit seven starts. -- Jeff Legwold


    Kansas City Chiefs

    Over/under 17 touchdown passes for Alex Smith?

    Prediction: Over. We'll take the over here because, injuries aside, how does a quarterback not throw at least 18 touchdown passes for a winning team in the modern NFL? Smith has thrown more than 17 TD passes in three of his four seasons with Kansas City -- but not last year, when he had just 15. -- Adam Teicher


    Los Angeles Chargers

    Over/under 29 touchdown passes for Philip Rivers?

    Prediction: Over. Since 2010, Rivers has finished with fewer than 29 TD passes only twice for a season. Even though the Chargers will have more balance and commit to running the football under head coach Anthony Lynn, offenses still have to throw to score when teams get in compact areas, such as the red zone. Rivers has several playmakers to get the ball to near the goal line, and he should fill the stat sheet up if he stays healthy in 2017. -- Paul Gutierrez


    Oakland Raiders

    Over/under 27 touchdown passes for Derek Carr?

    Prediction: Under. Yeah, I know, Carr is on the rise, is an NFL MVP candidate and he has so many flashy toys around him in receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, tight end Jared Cook and running back Marshawn Lynch. But therein lies the dilemma: Lynch will command the ball deep in the red zone, and that just might eat into Carr's scoring pass production. And Carr is just fine with that development -- as long as Oakland wins games. -- Eric D. Williams
     

  14. #14  
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    Predicting fantasy QB over/unders for all 32 teams
    ESPN INSIDER

    To celebrate the kickoff of the ESPN Fantasy Football Marathon, this week NFL Nation reporters will be giving their fantasy predictions for the top offensive players on the teams they cover.

    ESPN fantasy football analyst Mike Clay provided the over/unders for this exercise -- using his 2017 projections -- and each Nation reporter was given one projection for each position on which to give a prediction.

    NFC EAST


    Dallas Cowboys

    Over/under nine interceptions for Dak Prescott?

    Prediction: Under. Prescott is using training camp to test his boundaries in risk-taking this summer, but when it comes to real games, he won't take unnecessary risks. He has too many receivers who can win early on routes. Will he go lower than last year's interception total of four? No, but he will have fewer than nine. -- Todd Archer


    New York Giants

    Over/under 28 touchdown passes for Eli Manning?

    Prediction: Over. Manning has topped 30 touchdowns in two of his three years while working with Ben McAdoo in the current offense. Even in a bad season last year, Manning barely was under this number, throwing for 26 touchdowns. He will bounce back personally and get over the number while working with vastly improved weapons. -- Jordan Raanan



    Philadelphia Eagles

    Over/under 174 rushing yards for Carson Wentz?

    Prediction: Over. The Eagles coaching staff was conservative with the amount it allowed Wentz to run as a rookie, especially early in the season. He finished with 150 rushing yards. As his trust and his familiarity with the NFL game grew, the Eagles deployed him more as a running threat. Wentz will always look to pass first, but he can use his legs as a weapon when need be. You should see him rack up more yards on the ground in Year 2. -- Tim McManus


    Washington Redskins

    Over/under 4,711 passing yards for Kirk Cousins?


    Prediction: Under. After throwing for a franchise-record 4,917 yards last season, it's hard to assume he'll get there again, after he lost two proven receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. And if tight end Jordan Reed remains on the physically unable to perform list for any length of time, it also could affect Cousins' chances to exceed this number. Another factor: Will Josh Doctson produce for a full season? The key for Cousins' success won't be the yardage total, but his red zone success. -- John Keim

    NFC NORTH


    Chicago Bears

    Over/under 12 starts for Mike Glennon?

    Prediction: Under: Chicago's starting job still belongs to Glennon, who is guaranteed $16 million this year, but Mitchell Trubisky's performance in the preseason opener makes the quarterback depth chart a whole lot more interesting. Trubisky will eventually be the guy, and that might happen sooner rather than later. Plus, can Glennon stay healthy? Almost everyone in Chicago gets hurt. There are too many reasons not to take the under here. -- Jeff Dickerson


    Detroit Lions

    Over/under 28 touchdown passes for Matthew Stafford?

    Prediction: Over: Matthew Stafford has more passing options than he did last year, even with Anquan Boldin heading to Buffalo. Eric Ebron should receive more end zone targets with Boldin gone, and rookie Kenny Golladay is the tall receiver with a good catch radius that Stafford hasn't had since Calvin Johnson retired. (But no, Golladay is no Johnson.) Add in tight end Darren Fells, who is another tall red zone target, and two healthy pass-catching backs in Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, and Stafford should be over 30 touchdown passes for the second time in three seasons. -- Michael Rothstein


    Green Bay Packers

    Over/under 35 touchdown passes for Aaron Rodgers?

    Prediction: Over: He has topped that mark in two of the past three seasons, and now he has an even bigger -- literally -- red zone threat in tight end Martellus Bennett. The 6-foot-6 veteran quickly has built a chemistry with Rodgers during training camp that should pay off, especially in the red zone. -- Rob Demovsky


    Minnesota Vikings

    Over/under 3,797 passing yards for Sam Bradford?


    Prediction: Over. Bradford topped that figure last season while missing one start and finishing the season with the NFL's lowest average of air yards per attempt (6.24). The Vikings will run more often, and with more production, this season after drafting Dalvin Cook and signing veteran Latavius Murray. But Bradford should be able to compensate for anything he loses to the run game by getting bigger chunks downfield, which is a big priority for this scheme. -- Kevin Seifert

    NFC SOUTH


    Atlanta Falcons

    Over/under 32 touchdown passes for Matt Ryan?

    Prediction: Over. Ryan had 38 last season and top target Julio Jones missed two games. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian plans to utilize Jones more in the red zone, which should create more scoring opportunities for Ryan. Plus, the emergence of Austin Hooper as a red zone threat, the sure-handed play of Mohamed Sanu and the abilities of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as receivers -- not to mention wide receiver Taylor Gabriel as a deep threat -- gives Ryan so many options. -- Vaughn McClure


    Carolina Panthers

    Over/under 29 total touchdowns for Cam Newton?

    Prediction: Under: You'd think this was a layup with all the new toys around Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP. But even as a dual-threat quarterback, he has fallen below 29 total touchdowns in three of his six seasons. That he is coming off shoulder surgery and expected to have fewer called runs means his rushing touchdown total should be down. The only way he tops 29 is if first-round pick Christian McCaffrey turns into a scoring machine on short passes. -- David Newton


    New Orleans Saints

    Over/under 4,889 passing yards for Drew Brees?

    Prediction: Over. This estimate will probably come close -- but it would mark the lowest per-game average for Brees since 2010. I know we will see a drop-off from the 38-year-old at some point. But there's no reason to think it's imminent. He just led the NFL (for the seventh time) with 5,208 yards last season -- the second highest total of his career. Perhaps the Saints will try to run the ball a little more after adding Adrian Peterson to join Mark Ingram. But they've tried to improve their run game often in the past -- and they always wind up learning on their bread and butter. -- Mike Triplett


    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Over/under 4,244 passing yards for Jameis Winston?


    Prediction: Over. Winston has Mike Evans, who has three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards. Winston also has DeSean Jackson, whose 17.71 yards per catch is the most by an NFL receiver since 2008. Both of those receivers live off making big plays downfield. Last season, Winston passed for 4,090 yards, even though a number of his receivers were injured, including Vincent Jackson. There is every reason to believe he can eclipse that and get to 4,244 this season. -- Jenna Laine

    NFC WEST


    Arizona Cardinals

    Over/under 4,343 passing yards for Carson Palmer?

    Prediction: Over. Palmer had 4,233 passing yards last season without a productive Michael Floyd, without a healthy John Brown and without an injured Jaron Brown. Floyd is gone and the Browns are healthy, but the Cardinals have added depth to their receiving corps with rookie Chad Williams and veterans Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Ross. They also have David Johnson, who had 879 receiving yards last season and is primed to improve that number to 1,000-plus yards. -- Josh Weinfuss


    Los Angeles Rams

    Over/under 17 interceptions for Jared Goff?

    Prediction: Under. Slightly. Goff, 22, is coming off a catastrophic rookie season in which he threw seven interceptions in seven games. But he is far more set up for success this year. His offensive line will be greatly improved now that Andrew Whitworth has replaced Greg Robinson at left tackle, and a coaching staff led by Sean McVay is far more adept at coaching quarterbacks than a staff led by Jeff Fisher. With Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, Goff will have some better weapons that should make the game easier on him. -- Alden Gonzalez


    San Francisco 49ers

    Over/under 16 touchdown passes for Brian Hoyer?

    Prediction: Over. The question here is whether Hoyer, who has battled injuries in his career, can stay healthy enough to reach this number. Yes, he only has surpassed it once in his career, but this is his team and he's clearly comfortable in Kyle Shanahan's offense and has been sharp throughout camp. Colin Kaepernick threw for 16 scores last season for the Niners, despite not starting a full season and with a worse supporting cast and scheme. Hoyer should be able to top it. -- Nick Wagoner


    Seattle Seahawks

    Over/under 419 rushing yards for Russell Wilson?


    Prediction: Over. Wilson has rushed for more than this number in four of five NFL seasons. The only exception was last season, when he battled through three different injuries and had limited mobility. Wilson is down to 208 pounds after playing last year at 225. He has been moving great at training camp and should be good for more than 500 rushing yards in 2017. -- Sheil Kapadia

    AFC EAST



    Buffalo Bills

    Over/under 22 total touchdowns for Tyrod Taylor?

    Prediction: Over. Taylor threw for 17 touchdowns last season (and scored 23 total) with a depleted group of wide receivers. Even after the trade of Sammy Watkins to the Rams, I believe Taylor can match his output from last season. Anquan Boldin, who scored eight touchdowns and was Matthew Stafford's top red zone target last season, will play a part in getting Taylor to at least 22 touchdowns. Will that be enough to save Taylor's job in 2018? Maybe not. -- Mike Rodak


    Miami Dolphins

    Over/under 23 touchdown passes for Jay Cutler?

    Prediction: Over. Cutler has more talent at the skill positions in Miami, including receivers Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills, than he did in Chicago. The key here will be staying healthy: Cutler hasn't played 16 games since 2009 and is coming off shoulder surgery. -- ESPN.com staff


    New England Patriots

    Over/under 4,728 passing yards for Tom Brady?

    Prediction: Over. Brady had 4,770 yards in 2015 without the level of talent he is throwing to this season. In 2007, when the Patriots had the most prolific passing attack in the NFL, Brady had 4,806 passing yards. It could be close this year, but why not go all-in? -- Mike Reiss


    New York Jets

    Over/under seven starts for Christian Hackenberg?


    Prediction: Over. Hackenberg won't start the season -- Josh McCown will -- but his ascension is inevitable. The organization wants to get a long look at Hackenberg before the 2018 draft, and that means more than seven starts. Concerned about his confidence, they don't want to rush him. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise if the change happens in Week 4 or Week 5. He must learn to get rid of the ball more quickly or else he will leave himself vulnerable to injury. -- Rich Cimini

    AFC NORTH


    Baltimore Ravens

    Over/under 642 passing attempts for Joe Flacco?

    Prediction: Under. Flacco has only thrown more than that number of attempts once in his nine-year career, and the Ravens repeatedly have said that running the ball has become a point of emphasis. Plus, with the Ravens' defense, Flacco and the offense shouldn't be forced to throw the ball to play catch-up too often. If all goes according to plan, Flacco should throw the ball around 550 times. -- Jamison Hensley


    Cincinnati Bengals

    Over/under 23 touchdown passes for Andy Dalton?

    Prediction: Over. But probably not by much. This might be a bit of an optimistic prediction with the state of the offensive line and the fact that Dalton threw only 18 touchdowns last season, but Dalton managed 27 touchdowns in 2012, despite being sacked 46 times. With A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert healthy again and some new offensive toys in Joe Mixon and John Ross, Dalton will probably be passing more than ever. -- Katherine Terrell


    Cleveland Browns

    Over/under 10 starts for DeShone Kizer?

    Prediction: Under. This is a tough guess at this point of camp, and at this point it, is a guess. But even after an impressive preseason opener, coach Hue Jackson was not ready to commit to Kizer as the starter. The way he's playing, though, Kizer will at some point be the starter. The timing of that is up for debate, but it won't be early enough for Kizer to stay healthy enough to start double-digit games. -- Pat McManamon


    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Over/under 4,214 passing yards for Ben Roethlisberger?


    Prediction: Over. This is contingent on health. When Roethlisberger is in the lineup, he has averaged 302 passing yards per game since 2014, or 4,842 yards over 16 games. There's always a chance Roethlisberger misses a few games, but he's healthy now and playing with his best playmaking arsenal. Yards are rarely the fantasy issue with Big Ben. The touchdown numbers are more unpredictable. -- Jeremy Fowler

    AFC SOUTH


    Houston Texans

    Over/under 10 starts for Deshaun Watson?

    Prediction: Under. It's easy to see a world where Watson surpasses 10 starts, but that would likely involve Tom Savage getting hurt or playing much worse than he did on Wednesday night in the preseason opener. While that certainly could happen -- Savage had been injured in each of his three previous seasons, and he has not thrown an NFL touchdown pass -- it seems more likely that if Watson starts, it will be about midway through the season. -- Sarah Barshop


    Indianapolis Colts

    Over/under 29 touchdown passes for Andrew Luck?

    Prediction: Over. I need to preface the over part by assuming Luck plays at least 14 games this season, because he remains out after a January surgery on his right shoulder. The Colts should easily finish in the top 10 in offense this season with a healthy Luck. He has all his top skill positions players back, and this could be the best group of receivers that he has played with in his career in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Chester Rogers and Phillip Dorsett. It also should help that this is the first time the Colts return their core group of offensive linemen from the previous season for the first time in Luck's six-year career. -- Mike Wells


    Jacksonville Jaguars

    Over/under 540 passing attempts for Blake Bortles?

    Prediction: Under. That's just under 34 attempts per game, and the Jaguars don't want to throw the ball that much. Bortles has averaged 37 pass attempts per game during his three-year career, and Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin want to cut that to fewer than 30 per game. That's why the Jaguars drafted running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall. They want to play ball-control and rely on defense and special teams to shorten games. The defense should be good enough to keep most games close enough that they don't have to abandon the run. -- Mike DiRocco


    Tennessee Titans

    Over/under 29 total touchdowns for Marcus Mariota?


    Prediction: Over. Mariota had 28 touchdowns through 15 games last season. If healthy, and that's an important caveat, Mariota is in a great position to surpass that mark. He has stronger red zone receiving weapons with Eric Decker and Corey Davis to go along with the consistency of Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews. -- Cameron Wolfe

    AFC WEST


    Denver Broncos

    Over/under seven starts for Paxton Lynch?

    Prediction: Under -- unless Lynch roars through the combined workouts against the 49ers this week and shows composure in the pocket in his preseason start on Saturday. There is no question he can still win the job. But unless he rallies, Trevor Siemian takes a major stumble or the Broncos decision-makers simply push him into the lineup, Lynch likely won't hit seven starts. -- Jeff Legwold


    Kansas City Chiefs

    Over/under 17 touchdown passes for Alex Smith?

    Prediction: Over. We'll take the over here because, injuries aside, how does a quarterback not throw at least 18 touchdown passes for a winning team in the modern NFL? Smith has thrown more than 17 TD passes in three of his four seasons with Kansas City -- but not last year, when he had just 15. -- Adam Teicher


    Los Angeles Chargers

    Over/under 29 touchdown passes for Philip Rivers?

    Prediction: Over. Since 2010, Rivers has finished with fewer than 29 TD passes only twice for a season. Even though the Chargers will have more balance and commit to running the football under head coach Anthony Lynn, offenses still have to throw to score when teams get in compact areas, such as the red zone. Rivers has several playmakers to get the ball to near the goal line, and he should fill the stat sheet up if he stays healthy in 2017. -- Paul Gutierrez


    Oakland Raiders

    Over/under 27 touchdown passes for Derek Carr?

    Prediction: Under. Yeah, I know, Carr is on the rise, is an NFL MVP candidate and he has so many flashy toys around him in receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, tight end Jared Cook and running back Marshawn Lynch. But therein lies the dilemma: Lynch will command the ball deep in the red zone, and that just might eat into Carr's scoring pass production. And Carr is just fine with that development -- as long as Oakland wins games. -- Eric D. Williams
     

  15. #15  
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    Rookie quarterbacks shine in first preseason weekend
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/14/17

    Fantasy football owners are reminded annually not only to ignore performances by rookie quarterbacks in the preseason, but also to take little notice of rookie quarterbacks in re-draft formats in general. Perhaps this is a new era. After all, the Dallas Cowboys were forced to turn to Dak Prescott last August and that went pretty well for all, as the fourth-round pick from Mississippi State filled in for injured Tony Romo. He raised hopes in August, moved up in average live drafts ahead of Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan, among others, and actually ended up as a top-10 fantasy quarterback.

    One year prior, it was Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota -- the first picks in real life and instant starters -- who aided fantasy owners, even in standard formats. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that fantasy owners with an insatiable desire to overrate any preseason numbers they can are again looking for the latest first-year options to emerge. After one preseason weekend, the three passers to watch are Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer and Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky, each showing off their arm and legs over the past few days and making fans of those teams believe their draft-day investments were certainly worth it.
    As a result, it seems worth exploring if fantasy owners should be as upbeat as well. After all, while the Texans are likely to go with 27-year-old veteran Tom Savage as their initial starter (and he did nothing wrong in Wednesday’s game against the Panthers), he has barely played in the regular season and he’s guaranteed little. Between Savage and Watson, one can at least feel somewhat confident about wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins bouncing back to pre-2016 relevance. The Texans claim they won’t push Watson, who threw for 179 yards and rushed for a touchdown in Wednesday’s outing at Carolina, but the skills are obvious and there’s enough around him -- running game, weapons, defense -- to see how he could duplicate Prescott’s statistical efforts.

    The other situations are a bit dicey, as the Browns and Bears don’t project to be the least bit good, while Kizer and Trubisky are viewed more as projects. But what does that really mean? Was Prescott supposed to throw for more yards than Cam Newton and finish second to Tom Brady in interception rate? Of course not! The Cowboys won four games in 2015, then 13 with Prescott. Watson obviously delivered a more celebrated college career at Clemson than Kizer and Trubisky did at Notre Dame and North Carolina, respectively, but they’ve got skills, too. Both showed off their ability to scramble and gain yards on the ground. Fantasy owners like that, too.

    For now, it’s a tad silly to exalt any rookie quarterbacks to anything close to starting status in a standard fantasy league. Far more rookie quarterbacks struggle than end up like Prescott. Surely by now you’re heard about the 28 interceptions future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning tossed as a rookie, but there are other examples. Last season, the top rookie quarterbacks from the draft were injured in the preseason (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz) and nobody wanted them, although Denver’s Paxton Lynch played fairly well. That didn’t translate to regular-season games and he was a real-life first-round selection, not that it had any bearing on his future. That’s the other thing fantasy owners should simply forget about. Real-life draft position might keep a guy in the league longer and give him more chances because of financial reasons, but it often fails to coincide with production.

    In an ESPN standard format, where 10 teams should be waiting on quarterbacks and most of them needn’t bother with choosing backups at all until closer to the bye weeks, avoid the rookie passers. In dynasty formats, do not. In deeper standard formats, however, I might take a chance on Watson. His situation does bear some similarities with Prescott’s, after all. It comes down to strategy purposes. In a two-QB league, you still want to select two definite starters and a third option for the bye weeks and, as of now, no rookies are likely to start in Week 1. Pay attention anyway because Watson, Kizer and Trubisky are interesting, and there’s also Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II, moving up the depth chart, and perhaps Nathan Peterman in Buffalo.

    Weekend quarterback notes

    It’s really tough to learn much about the actual starting passers in a preseason game, so I’ll soon move on to relevant positions. Matt McGloin tossed 42 passes in relief of Wentz. Dallas backup Kellen Moore threw for 251 yards. Arizona reserve Blaine Gabbert was sacked a lot. We did see New York Jets sophomore Christian Hackenberg average barely five yards per completion on 25 throws in what had to be an unwatchable 7-3 win over the Titans. I think dynasty leaguers were avoiding him anyway.

    Weekend running back notes

    The big news here surrounds another rookie, as Jacksonville Jaguars expected workhorse Leonard Fournette injured a foot during a 31-yard performance Thursday that included a fancy touchdown run. His availability this week is problematic, but for now, don’t worry. He remains a borderline RB1 for most. If this becomes a problem, keep an eye on third-year Auburn product Corey Grant, who busted a 79-yard scoring run on the first play of the second half. Grant rushed 18 times for 122 yards and a score in Week 17 at the Colts last season.

    Texans rookie D'Onta Foreman is the third-stringer behind Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue, but he got noticed with his 82 total yards, half of those coming on one fourth-quarter run. Foreman should be drafted in all leagues, but late.

    The Seahawks went with Thomas Rawls instead of Eddie Lacy Sunday night, which might mean nothing, or it could mean there’s a legitimate competition few had considered. Watch what the Seahawks reporters say about practices this week. It could send Lacy’s ADP plummeting.

    One has to believe C.J. Anderson is Denver’s starter, but rookie De'Angelo Henderson broke a 41-yard touchdown run and veteran Stevan Ridley led the team with eight rushing attempts. Devontae Booker is injured and Jamaal Charles might not make the squad. What a mess!

    Weekend wide receiver notes

    Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin opened the scoring this preseason with an athletic touchdown catch from Derek Anderson, yet another reminder of the upside the receiver possesses. Perhaps all the talk about Benjamin’s fitness is a waste of time, but he’s still not likely to match his rookie stats in this offense.

    More rookie talk! Northern Illinois product Kenny Golladay scored two touchdowns against the Colts and they were pretty plays! If you saw Marvin Jones underachieve after September last season, you can envision relevance here. But alas, it’s one game with backup quarterbacks. Then again, last August the Saints’ Michael Thomas had a big preseason opener and forced his way into immediate relevance.

    The Chiefs’ Chris Conley is likely to start opposite Tyreek Hill, which has its advantages because the latter is a major deep threat, should the Chiefs decide to test defenses. While Alex Smith found Hill for a nice 32-yard sideline pass Friday, Conley made several plays as well. There was also an 83-yard touchdown from Tyler Bray called back because of offensive pass interference. Conley could become a September free-agent fantasy target.

    Redskins second-year option Josh Doctson has a hamstring injury and didn’t play, and might not this week as well. He’s probably someone who needed to win a starting job with his August play.

    Sammy Watkins and Jordan Matthews played Thursday and were traded Friday, and I blogged about the trades, but this is the week to see what the Rams, Bills and Eagles do with targets. Rams rookie Cooper Kupp could matter in deep leagues, and Bills rookie Zay Jones should. As for Matthews, he suffered a chip fracture in his sternum in his very first practice for his new team but, as of now, it doesn't appear it will cause him to miss Week 1 or curtail his performance.

    Finally, just to remind everyone that real-life draft status is a poor indicator of future fantasy relevance, the Buccaneers already have given up on kicker Roberto Aguayo, a year after trading up in the draft to make him a second-round selection! How silly! The Bears claimed him on Sunday, but even if he beats out Connor Barth, do you want a Bears kicker? Do you want these Bears kickers? Aguayo, incidentally, rose to the No. 11 spot among kickers in last season’s ADP so, yep, a lot of people fell for this one.
     

  16. #16  
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    The smart way to approach your 2017 fantasy draft
    Eric Karabell
    8/16/17

    There’s really no “right” way to win a fantasy league so the first bit of advice I tend to share with prospective owners is to feel free to ignore every last bit of information passed on by my excellent colleagues in the ESPN Fantasy group -- and me. It might sound ridiculously counterintuitive, but the strategies and approaches I favor might not be so comfortable for you. It’s simply advice that I (mostly) follow and that’s about it, so I share with all. Entertain and inform. Inform and entertain. Rinse and repeat.

    Some owners want to prove they can draft a quarterback in the top 10 and still win, and I certainly can’t deny it happens. Hey, draft a defense in Round 5 and it can happen. Leave your draft sans a tight end or with only two running backs and yes, it still can happen. There are myriad ways to secure a fantasy championship and most start on draft day. That said, although I prefer certain strategies and themes in drafting my team, it would be foolish to insist it’s the only way.

    So as we approach the 2017 season, whether your drafts are piling up or you’re waiting on only one -- the most important draft ever in your lone league -- it seems a wise time to share thoughts not necessarily on individual players but the hows, whys and some basic philosophies. Some of these won’t jibe with your thoughts and hey, that’s OK.
    Be prepared: It might seem obvious, but many veteran owners still show up to drafts late, carrying dated magazines and perhaps under the influence of something. Hey, it’s an event, we all want to have a great time, but if you want to do well, make your own rankings and lists and tiers in advance so when stuff happens during the draft or auction, you’re ready. Plus, don’t laptops and iPads and phones freeze during drafts? Mine do on occasion. Have a cheat sheet printed out just in case, and cross out names of those gone.

    And by the way, with the proliferation of point-per-reception (PPR) formats as well as multi-QB leagues, many owners might not even know their updated league rules. It can’t be a good feeling choosing LeGarrette Blount as your first running back and finding out later it’s a PPR setting, or waiting until the 10th round for a quarterback when two will need to be active. How many teams are in your league? Do return yards count? Are there bonuses for 300 passing yards or 100 rushing yards? Do I really have to get a tattoo there if I finish last? It only takes a minute to pin down these details, and it’s tough to win if you’re playing by different rules.

    Picking first, last or whatever: Most of the time we cannot choose our first-round slot but regardless of sport, I want to pick first or last because I covet the consecutive picks. Really, it doesn’t matter much, but selecting first you get the best player, and going last you get two of the top 11 in a standard format. If you’re confident in your ability to find sleepers in the late rounds, then you'll pick David Johnson first and the rest will fall into place. When I pick last, I tend to choose players by queuing two or three choices per pick and narrowing down to the one or two I need to acquire at that point. It’s just more comfortable for me than picking in the middle of a round and having to worry about long droughts between picks. I'd rather start the positional or statistical trends via consecutive picks, not join them.

    Depth is critical: I didn’t choose a quarterback until the very last round of one of our summer mock drafts. I like to wait on the position, and the reason is quite simple. I prefer to build a strong base of running backs and wide receivers in the first three, four, well ... let’s say eight or nine rounds, and then select a quarterback, because in single-QB formats, there’s so much depth there. At the flex-eligible spots, meanwhile, injuries, position battles and general uncertainty create a need to secure several options. Unlike QB, you'll need more than one player to start and hope half of those you draft are really valuable and things work out. And, once you get past the top five fantasy passers, there’s not much difference. A record 18 quarterbacks reached 250 fantasy points last season, but the margin between the Nos. 6 and 20 options was less than three points per game. In this case, the waiting is not the hardest part.

    Seek balance: Never leave a draft or auction assuming you can trade for something you really need. No matter the sport, other owners can see when you have nothing at quarterback or have failed to select a closer or point guard. Mainly, you should seek a smart cross section of talent, whether building up extra options at running back and wide receiver, or veterans versus rookies, or durable versus brittle players, or those who play for quality teams versus suspect teams. It’s no big deal to draft both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but if you do, don’t throw in Devonta Freeman as well. Try to avoid a team of all players from the same division, too, especially if a defense is involved. One rookie per team is generally enough, and if you must go that route, do so at running back.

    Tiers of joy: Whether for a draft or an auction, knowing what is available in a larger sense, like for the next three or four rounds, is so important. I blogged about a tiered system for the big three fantasy positions (here is quarterback, running backs and wide receiver), and it really does help. Things move quickly when players are coming off the board. Crossing out names from a piece of paper or removing them on a word doc using tiers makes things so much easier. It will help you avoid taking the first of seven wide receivers you might have similar expectations for in the fifth round, when a few of them will likely be there for your next pick or picks. In that situation you're better off selecting at a position where the best remaining talent is thinner.

    Rankings are merely a guide: These are going to be your players. You’ll do better making your own rankings, or at least your own tiers, and using rankings for direction. Sometimes people will ask if they can select a player a round or two ahead of where we’ve slotted them. Of course you can! You can do whatever you want. I guess the point is while value really is important in any draft, if you’re concerned a player you really, really want in Round 5 will go prior to that, then reaching for Round 4 is no big deal. And so on. I’ve seen so many owners over the years whine in December that they knew a certain player would be great, but they were afraid they’d embarrass themselves selecting him over more established or healthier options. Players emerge and outperform average draft position all the time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate proper value, and that also means pouncing on a player who slips, even if you’re a Giants fan and it’s Dez Bryant who slides. Get past your biases. You’re trying to win a league.

    Drop the handcuffs: Some backup running backs are in really positive situations and if the starter were to struggle or get hurt, they’d thrive. Others would not. I find that the practice of handcuffing in fantasy is rarely a factor, and mostly because so many owners don’t have the patience to wait for the potential opportunity, which often tends to happen after the season’s first month. For example, the Steelers always seem to run the football effectively. Le'Veon Bell is elite. But he’s always going to be a bigger risk than most for injury, and it's also fair to consider that he has an NFL suspension on his resume. Rookie James Conner is next in line, and he's a wise late-round choice whether you own Bell or not. Many non-Bell owners enjoyed the stylings of DeAngelo Williams the past two seasons. Meanwhile, who’s the backup for David Johnson in Arizona? Whoever it is isn’t likely to be so great. Oh, and don’t bother selecting any NFL team's backup quarterbacks, wide receivers or tight ends. Yes, Rob Gronkowski could get hurt but Dwayne Allen isn’t nearly as good, so the Patriots' game plan would surely change.

    Don't overthink bye weeks: While we do provide the bye weeks in the rankings and in the draft rooms, I think it might be counterproductive to many. Sure, having each of your five wide receivers off the same week is a bad idea, but I find the extra information influences owners into poor draft-day decisions. First of all, the bye weeks don’t start until October. So much is going to change in September, with injuries and position battle clarity, that many new names will emerge. I barely look at the bye weeks while drafting, and generally only after I've secured three or more running backs and wide receivers. There will be ample time to find the backup quarterbacks and tight ends.

    Have fun! Sure, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to enjoy fantasy sports as a career and am grateful to so many for the remarkable opportunities, but time and maturity have helped me realize this is still just a game. It’s a billion-dollar industry now, but win, lose or (awkwardly) tie, it’s about appreciating the journey of a season, too. I’ve won leagues and not had fun. Most leagues we don’t win, but if it keeps you entertained for five, six months -- the season, your league, our ESPN Fantasy content -- it’s worth it. Pick a team you’ll enjoy, even if it might not necessarily be the best team you can build. Nobody knows for certain that the No. 14-ranked guy at this position is absolutely going to be better than the No. 24-ranked fellow. So choose with confidence!
     

  17. #17  
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    Wide receivers with the easiest schedules in 2017
    Mike Clay
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/16/17

    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 strength of schedule for each wide receiver even before the season 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 the purpose of this exercise, I've ranked each team's cornerback unit by focusing primarily on each team's top three corners (offenses had three wide receivers on the field for 76 percent 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" strategies to determine how tough each will be in a variety of areas, including clear No. 1, No. 2, left, right and slot wide receivers.

    Once I had each cornerback unit ranked and analyzed, I took a look at each offense's 2017 schedule and determined which wide receivers will face the easiest cornerback slates this season.


    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.

    For reference, the wide receiver units ranked No. 1 through No. 5 in last year's edition of this piece finished eighth, sixth, third, 10th, and 12th, respectively, in fantasy points.

    Check back throughout the season for the weekly WR/CB matchup chart and analysis. Note that since many of your leagues won't include Week 17 in the fantasy schedule, only Weeks 1-16 are included in this analysis.

    Best WR matchups

    1. Carolina Panthers

    Biggest upgrade: Kelvin Benjamin

    After a down year in 2016, the Panthers' passing game is primed for a rebound this season. Carolina's fantasy schedule is light, and the team's wide receivers will benefit from a really easy schedule across the board. This includes the league's easiest cornerback matchups for No. 1, No. 2 and slot receivers. The biggest benefactor here is Benjamin. Carolina's 6-foot-5 top wideout finished 17th at the position in fantasy points as a rookie in 2014, missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL and barely slipped into the top 30 last season. Twelve of 15 games on his 2017 slate will be against cornerback units ranked 19th or lower (25.1 average unit grade). The exceptions are Atlanta, New England and Minnesota. There are very few viable shadow corners on his slate, with Darius Slay, Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant and Stephon Gilmore standing out as the most logical.

    Devin Funchess is an intriguing third-year breakout target and will also benefit from a light slate opposite Benjamin. Rookies Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey figure to soak up a generous chunk of the Panthers' slot targets and should be upgraded accordingly.

    2. Atlanta Falcons

    Biggest upgrade: Julio Jones

    The wideouts for the defending NFC champion Falcons will face a light cornerback slate for the second consecutive season. Last season we saw Jones and Taylor Gabriel dominate inferior corners, and we might expect Mohamed Sanu to join in the fun in 2017. Jones will face the league's second-easiest schedule for a No. 1 wideout. Shadow coverage against Richard Sherman, Slay, Rhodes and Gilmore is likely, but Atlanta will face a cornerback unit ranked 21st or worse during 10 of its other 11 games. Jones is poised to make a run for most fantasy points at wideout this season.

    Sanu, meanwhile, will face the league's second-lightest schedule for slot receivers. Gabriel bounces around the formation but lined up wide to the right on 48 percent of his routes last season. The Falcons' right WR will face the league's third-easiest slate this season.

    3. Arizona Cardinals

    Biggest upgrade: Larry Fitzgerald

    The Cardinals sit second in the NFL in four-plus-wide receiver sets (20 percent) when passing during the Bruce Arians era, so a light cornerback schedule has added benefit for his offense. Arizona's No. 1 receiver technically faces a schedule that is tougher than average, but Fitzgerald moves around so often and works as the team's primary slot receiver, which means he'll dodge shadow coverage often. J.J. Nelson lined up wide to Carson Palmer's left a team-high 41 percent of the time last year, and Arizona faces the third-easiest slate for a LWR. John Brown, Jaron Brown and rookie Chad Williams also stand to benefit, which adds to their sleeper appeal.

    4. New York Giants

    Biggest upgrade: Brandon Marshall

    Last season, the Giants ranked No. 1 on this list, and both Odell Beckham Jr. (fourth) and Sterling Shepard (36th) had strong fantasy campaigns. Marshall is now in the mix, which gives the Giants one of the best wide receiver trios in the league. The group will also benefit from a light schedule that includes the league's easiest slate for left wide receivers and a tie for easiest slate for No. 2 receivers. Beckham lined up wide to the left on 48 percent of his routes, and Marshall -- then with the Jets -- 44 percent last year. Beckham will need to deal with potential shadow coverage from the likes of Slay, Sherman, Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson, as well as face the terrific Chargers and Broncos duos. That's no walk in the park, but the average unit ranking of the other nine teams on the Giants' slate is 24.6. Shepard, meanwhile, will face the league's 10th-easiest schedule for a slot receiver.

    5. Seattle Seahawks

    Biggest upgrade: Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson

    The Seahawks are perhaps the most interesting team in the top five as their landscape is a bit unique. The team's No. 1 and slot receiver will both face a slate that is slightly harder than average. As it happens, Doug Baldwin is both of those. That opens the door for the likes of Lockett, Richardson and Jermaine Kearse to benefit. Seattle's No. 2 receiver will face the league's easiest slate, the left receiver will handle the sixth-easiest schedule, and the primary right wideout will see the third-easiest opposition. The issue here is nailing down who will be on the field. Lockett is coming off a broken fibula and tibia, Kearse struggled badly last year, and Richardson barely saw the field due to injuries before breaking out during the 2016 playoffs. The best move here is to consider taking a late-round stab at Richardson and Lockett. This year's third-round pick, Amara Darboh, is worth monitoring.

    Easiest slates for No. 1 WRs: Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins

    Although the Patriots' top wideout is positioned to benefit here, the team moves its players around so often that it's hard to pinpoint exactly who to upgrade. Brandin Cooks is most likely the benefactor. Dolphins No. 1 wideout Jarvis Landry primarily works the slot, and Miami also faces the league's seventh-easiest slot schedule. That's in addition to a tougher-than-average slate against outside and No. 2 receivers. Landry should be upgraded, whereas Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker will be in a tougher spot.

    Easiest slates for No. 2 WRs: Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

    Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin join the previously mentioned players from these teams as enticing fantasy options.

    Easiest slates for slot WRs: Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos

    Stefon Diggs lined up in the slot 63 percent of the time last season. Rookie Carlos Henderson is expected to handle primary slot duties for Denver this year. Both should be upgraded.

    Easiest slates for primary left WRs: New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins

    Washington has a new offensive coordinator and a pair of new perimeter wide receivers, so it's hard to pinpoint one primary benefactor here. The team does, however, face a tough slot schedule (bad news for Jamison Crowder) and a much easier slate against the perimeter. Josh Doctson and Terrelle Pryor Sr. will generally line up outside.

    Easiest slates for primary right WRs: Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons

    Kevin White lined up wide to the right on 53 percent of his 131 routes last year. Assuming that's his primary role again this year, this helps boost his breakout appeal. Interestingly, the Bucs, Lions and Ravens face a pretty tough cornerback slate everywhere except right wide receiver. DeSean Jackson (42 percent) and Mike Evans (34 percent) both spent some time wide to the right last season. Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman each figure to see time lined up all over the formation, so there's not much to be gained here. Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman will work both sides of the perimeter in Cleveland. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones both lined up at RWR 41 percent of the time last year.

    Worst Cornerback Units
    RANK TEAM PLAYERS
    1 SF Rashard Robinson, Keith Reaser, K'Waun Williams, Will Redmond, Ahkello Witherspoon
    2 BUF Tre'Davious White, Kevon Seymour, E.J. Gaines, Shareece Wright
    3 DAL Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll II, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis
    4 NYJ Morris Claiborne, Juston Burris, Buster Skrine, Marcus Williams
    5 CHI Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Bryce Callahan, Cre'von LeBlanc
    6 GB Kevin King, Davon House, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Ladarius Gunter
    7 PHI Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Ron Brooks, Rasul Douglas, Malcolm Jenkins, Sidney Jones
    8 IND Vontae Davis, Quincy Wilson, Darius Butler, Rashaan Melvin
    9 LA Trumaine Johnson, Kayvon Webster, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lamarcus Joyner
    10 MIA Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, Tony Lippett
    11 TB Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves III, Robert McClain, Jude Adjei-Barimah
    12 NO Delvin Breaux, Marshon Lattimore, Sterling Moore, P.J. Williams
    13 TEN Logan Ryan, Adoree' Jackson, Brice McCain, LeShaun Sims
    14 DET Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, D.J. Hayden, Quandre Diggs, Teez Tabor
    15 CLV Jason McCourty, Joe Haden, Jamar Taylor, Briean Boddy-Calhoun
    16 WAS Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller, Fabian Moreau, Quinton Dunbar
     

  18. #18  
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    Do Not Draft list: Rob Gronkowski leads the way
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/17/17

    New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the signature football players of this era, having topped 1,000 receiving yards three times in his seven seasons and reaching double-digit touchdowns in five of them. He has finished as fantasy’s top tight end in three of those seasons. But other than 2011, when Gronkowski emerged as one of the best players in fantasy and did so as a mid-round draft choice, he has never been a value pick, even for the healthy seasons. And as we all know by now, every season is certainly not a healthy season.

    As a result, Gronkowski is an annual staple of my “Do Not Draft” list, which of course hardly means I wouldn’t draft the player, but rather that I wouldn’t draft him at the spot I would need to in order to secure him -- which remains in the second round. It’s an important distinction, but obviously all people will presume that I don’t like the players discussed below, which is far from the truth. After all, who could find fault with Gronkowski? He’s awesome and a blast at parties! Well, I like to load up on running backs and wide receivers in the first four or five rounds, and that doesn’t leave room for a tight end or, as you’ll see, a quarterback early on.

    Gronkowski might end up as fantasy’s top tight end this season, and I’ve ranked him as fantasy’s top tight end, but fantasy’s top tight end is also a huge injury risk after missing more than half of the season's games in two of the past four years with various maladies. I don’t want to take the risk. In fact, while some picks need to be made for upside purposes, one should be more risk-averse in the early rounds. We all need only one tight end on our team, and drafting Gronkowski early means you probably need two. Plus, you’re missing out on some top-shelf talent to do so. Regardless, there’s a big name for you, and here are some others I won’t be drafting at the acquisition price it will cost, either using ESPN ADP (average draft position) or rough auction prices.

    Quarterback

    Like Gronkowski, Aaron Rodgers is a future Hall of Famer, but he’s durable, so it might seem odd to include him here. His inclusion is all about drafting a quarterback -- any quarterback -- in the first several rounds. Nobody should be doing this in a 10-team standard (one-QB) format. Rodgers was fantasy’s top quarterback last season, and he has finished among the top two in seven of the past nine seasons. No quarterback is as safe as Rodgers. But there’s tremendous depth at quarterback, and you need running backs and wide receivers early, so let’s just include Tom Brady and Drew Brees in here as well.

    Wait on your quarterbacks because they are always there late. In addition to the pretty obvious top tier at the position of Rodgers, Brady and Brees, I’m likely to avoid Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger as well. Last year was the first time in Ryan’s nine seasons that he finished among the top five quarterbacks. Nobody denies Ryan was great, but there’s generally a Super Bowl hangover, and with Ryan, quite a bit went right for him to have his best year, including an interception rate he suddenly slashed in half. That seems unlikely to continue. Meanwhile, Luck has the shoulder issue, and as of today, he might be available for Week 1, but wouldn’t you prefer more clarity than that? Don’t be surprised when his entire September becomes perilous. There are so many healthy quarterbacks out there, and Luck is great when he’s on the field, but why take the chance?

    As for Prescott, this isn’t some sophomore jinx thing. It’s also not about the absence of running back Ezekiel Elliott or the health of Dez Bryant, though I’ll be avoiding them as well. It’s about quarterbacks who rush for a bunch of touchdowns one season and then never do again. A mere three quarterbacks since 2002 have achieved multiple (and not just consecutive) five-rushing TD seasons (Cam Newton, Michael Vick and Tim Tebow). Prescott rushed for six touchdowns. Jameis Winston did this a year prior, and then he fell to one rushing touchdown. Prescott isn’t among my top 10 QBs.

    With Roethlisberger, until now he has been annually selected as a top-10 fantasy quarterback, but he has finished that way in only one of the past seven seasons. He not only misses games, but he’s well below average in road games, virtually unusable and worse than Brees ever was out of New Orleans. I want to draft only one quarterback and wait until the bye weeks to find one more, not draft a guy who misses games and must be platooned for half the season. Relying on Roethlisberger makes that difficult to do, but it also reminds fantasy owners that just because a team has a top running back and a top wide receiver, it doesn’t mean it has a top statistical quarterback. And just to show some accountability here, the “Do Not Draft” quarterbacks last year included Cam Newton (that was prescient) and Blake Bortles (a year too early, it appears, but on the right track).

    Running back

    Not to pick on the Cowboys, but the Ezekiel Elliott suspension is currently at six games, and including the Dallas bye week, it means he won’t be playing until Week 8. Are you kidding me? Elliott’s new ADP has him going in Round 3. My colleague Mike Clay, a likable and smart fellow, is totally on board with Elliott in Round 3, claiming he’ll still outscore -- in half the games -- quite a few running backs we’ve got targeted as top-20 options, including Isaiah Crowell. That might be true, but selecting Elliott in Round 3 over many relatively safe flex options (running back or wide receiver) isn’t worth it to me. It’s half the fantasy regular season, bench spots are valuable and it’s hard to take risks in the middle rounds because you’ve already taken a large one and made your team short-handed for half the season on a top pick.

    After that, there are two others generally regarded as top-20 running backs who I’ll avoid. One is Marshawn Lynch. Yes, the season in brief retirement would suggest his body should be rested, as linebackers weren’t regularly driving helmets into his thighs, but we have no idea what Lynch did with his body in that time. He’s 31 now, and most running backs see stark decline by that point. He’s not a noted pass-catcher, and we’re talking about PPR formats here. There were some underlying signs of success for him statistically with Seattle in 2015, mainly how he was able to break tackles, and on a per-volume basis he might top what Latavius Murray achieved last year, but I don’t see the volume, and there’s downside here few seem to be interested in.

    The other top-20 running back who I’ll ignore is Spencer Ware of the Kansas City Chiefs. He rushed for three touchdowns last season on 214 attempts, and that’s with many goal-line chances. He rushed for 70 yards in zero contests after Week 6, and rookie Kareem Hunt should get every opportunity to take the starting job, perhaps like Chicago’s Jordan Howard did last season.

    Who else? Glad you asked! In order of current ADP, let’s throw in new Seahawk Eddie Lacy, the Lions’ Ameer Abdullah and the Jets’ Matt Forte. Maybe Lacy really is in fine shape, but he wasn’t good in either of the past two seasons and he won’t be catching passes. When in doubt, go with pass-catchers in PPR. Abdullah won’t be asked to catch many passes, either, since Theo Riddick is there, and surely neither is a lock to stay the least bit healthy. And Forte? He's a Jet. I definitely like Bilal Powell more, but he’s a Jet, too. Try to avoid Jets, or for purposes of this blog, “Do Not Draft Jets.”

    As for last year, Carlos Hyde, Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Langford, DeMarco Murray, T.J. Yeldon and Ryan Mathews were mentioned. While Murray obviously returned to stardom and great relevance and was a big miss by me, the others generally disappointed or, in the cases of Langford and Yeldon, didn’t matter at all because they simply weren’t that good.

    Wide receiver

    The sudden trade of Sammy Watkins from Buffalo to Los Angeles seems to have already done quite a bit of harm to his ADP and might actually push him into a round that makes him a reasonable bargain, but he still qualifies for this list for now. Sure, we know how talented he is. We also know the many foot problems remain and now he’s got Jared Goff problems, too. But he will be able to avoid snow, so there is a positive.

    Not to cop out, but there aren’t many other relevant wide receivers I see with value disproportionate to ADP, so it likely will come down to sheer expectations. For example, do you want to believe what Allen Robinson achieved in 2015 can be duplicated, or that last season's mighty disappointment is more likely? I tend to think the problems Bortles had in finding Robinson last season are realistic and painful and will result in relative disappointment again if the cost is a top-20 option. The current ADP is not top-20. Similarly, the ADP of Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin is currently Round 6 and Brandon Marshall is going in the eighth, but again, their lofty names could get them overrated, and I just don’t see pending production commensurate with expectations. So I will not draft them.

    When it comes to talented Tyreek Hill and Martavis Bryant, I’ll repeat a stance from previous “Do Not Draft” blog entries: When in doubt, lean on receivers who catch many passes and be wary of those who do not. It’s the DeSean Jackson theory, and only once in Jackson’s career has he reached 65 receptions, and it isn’t happening in 2017. Hill caught 61 passes for 593 yards last season from a quarterback who doesn’t throw downfield well. I actually think Hill can get to 75 and 900, respectively, but the touchdowns will drop. He might not even participate in the return game. Bryant, should he be reinstated by the league to play as expected, is also overly dependent on touchdowns, having scored 15 in 21 career games on 76 catches. The touchdown rate can’t continue.

    Most of the “Do Not Draft” choices from last season actually looked wise, with Kelvin Benjamin, DeSean Jackson, Allen Hurns, Stefon Diggs and Markus Wheaton all finishing outside the top 25 scorers at the position. However, Seattle’s Doug Baldwin was very good. I won’t make that mistake again this year presuming the Seahawks will run, run and run some more.

    Tight end

    I really don’t have concerns about Rob Gronkowski being an excellent fantasy option. When he plays, he tends to play well. The problem is he’d need to play great, and pretty much every week, to earn his Round 2 draft status, and the argument that a fantasy owner wins the tight end battle versus his opponent every week with Gronk doesn’t fly so well, because he’s a major injury risk at any point. And who cares about winning the tight end battle? There’s a larger battle.

    One can draft Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert myriad rounds later, but his problem isn’t merely health. Eifert is so dependent on touchdowns, having averaged a mere 3.3 catches per game. He’s just not targeted enough and is a strong bet to miss multiple games. Gronkowski, Eifert and the overrated Coby Fleener were on this list last August, and I think it’s fair to include Jordan Reed this time around. Similarly to Gronkowski and Eifert, he can’t help you from the sidelines, and while there’s upside, the downside is having to roster multiple tight ends.
     

  19. #19  
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    Wide receivers with the toughest schedules in 2017

    Mike Clay
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/18/17

    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 strength of schedule 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 the purpose of 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 76 percent 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 teams' "shadowing" strategies to determine how tough each will be in a variety of areas, including clear No. 1, No. 2, left, right and slot wide receivers.

    Once I had each cornerback unit ranked and analyzed, I took a look at each offense's 2017 schedule and determined which wide receivers will face the toughest cornerback slates this season.


    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.

    For reference, the wide receiver units ranked one through five in last year's edition of this piece finished 29th, 19th, 31st, 25th and 11th, respectively, in fantasy points.

    Check back throughout the season for the weekly WR/CB matchup chart and analysis. Note that since many of your leagues won't include Week 17 in the fantasy schedule, only Weeks 1-16 are included in this analysis.

    Toughest WR matchups

    1. Dallas Cowboys

    Biggest downgrade: Dez Bryant

    Bryant is perhaps the most affected player in this exercise. The Cowboys are tied with the Rams in terms of having to face the league's toughest cornerback slate for a No. 1 wide receiver. This means Bryant can be expected to face shadow coverage from Janoris Jenkins (twice), Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman (twice), Desmond Trufant, Richard Sherman and potentially Trumaine Johnson. He'll also face the fantastic Broncos and Chargers cornerback duos and will see plenty of Marcus Peters in Week 9. Add that all up and Bryant will face a very good or great corner during 11 of his 15 fantasy-relevant games. Yes, Bryant is a superstar talent, but considering his durability woes, the Cowboys' run-heavy scheme and now this extremely tough schedule, he's a player who should be downgraded to WR2 territory.

    The Cowboys' opposition against No. 2, left and slot receivers is about league average (which means Cole Beasley won't be affected), but is toughest against right receivers. This will make life tougher on Terrance Williams, who lined up wide to Dak Prescott's right on 54 percent of his routes last season.

    2. Indianapolis Colts

    Biggest downgrade: Donte Moncrief

    The uncertainty surrounding Andrew Luck's health is enough of a concern for the Colts' offensive prospects, but excuse me while I add more reasons to worry. The team's wide receivers -- led by T.Y. Hilton and Moncrief -- will face the league's second-toughest slate of cornerbacks this season. Indianapolis boasts the league's fifth-toughest schedule against the No. 1 receiver and both perimeter receivers, the third-toughest schedule against the No. 2 wideout and the 10th hardest against the slot.

    The latter is actually somewhat of a relief for Hilton, who lined up in the slot on 58 percent of his routes last season. Moncrief spends over three-quarters of his routes outside, which means he's hurt the most here. The Colts play many teams with deep cornerback units, including Jacksonville (twice), Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Denver.

    When Hilton is inside, Moncrief also will draw the likes of Johnson, Peterson, Sherman and Jimmy Smith at times. The Colts' No. 3 gig remains a competition between Charles Rogers, Phillip Dorsett and Kamar Aiken, so the tough schedule and depth chart uncertainty makes these guys worth crossing off your late-round flier list in most formats.

    3. Detroit Lions

    Biggest downgrade: Marvin Jones Jr.

    This one is trickier to determine because Golden Tate lined up outside on 73 percent of his routes last season, but is a candidate to move inside more often with rookie Kenny Golladay expected to replace Anquan Boldin in three-wide sets. Detroit is set to face the league's third-toughest schedule for slot receivers, fifth toughest against left receivers, eighth hardest for No. 1 receivers and, interestingly enough, the eighth easiest against right receivers. Tate lined up wide to Matt Stafford's right most often last year (41 percent), but more slot work would make his life a bit tougher.

    Last season, defenses that chose to shadow Lions receivers leaned toward putting their top corner on Jones. Thus, Detroit's tough slate for No. 1 receivers doesn't bode well for his prospects. Jones lined up on the perimeter 90 percent of the time last year, 49 percent of which came on the left side. Considering we don't yet know exactly how Tate and Golladay will be used, this group should be downgraded only slightly.

    4. Houston Texans

    Biggest downgrade: DeAndre Hopkins

    Houston will face one of the five toughest slates in each department outside of slot receiver, which comes in near the middle of the pack. Hopkins moves all over the formation, but worked on the perimeter 79 percent of the time last year. That heavy usage on the outside only figures to be cemented with Will Fuller V expected to miss the first month or two of the season.

    Hopkins will be a candidate for shadow coverage against Vontae Davis, Sherman, Peterson, Johnson and Smith. He'll also face the tough cornerback units in Jacksonville (twice), Cincinnati, New England and Pittsburgh. Jaelen Strong -- and Fuller once he returns -- also will have their hands full on the perimeter. Braxton Miller, meanwhile, lined up inside on 68 percent of his routes as a rookie and might actually benefit a bit from the team's brutal slate against perimeter corners.

    5. Philadelphia Eagles

    Biggest downgrade: Alshon Jeffery

    The Eagles spent the offseason rebuilding at wide receiver, but a tough slate is going to make life tough for new go-to receiver Jeffery. The ex-Bears standout will face the league's fourth-toughest slate for a No. 1 wideout. Jeffery can expect shadow coverage from Norman (twice), Jenkins (twice), Sherman and Peterson, and might also draw it against Johnson and the emerging James Bradberry. Add in matchups with the Chargers, Broncos and Marcus Peters, and Jeffery is going to have his hands full nearly every week.

    Philadelphia moved its perimeter receivers around often last year, so Torrey Smith should face a fairly average slate opposite Jeffery. The Eagles actually face the 10th-easiest schedule against the slot, which coupled with Jeffery's tough road, helps Nelson Agholor's sleeper appeal a bit.

    Toughest slates for No. 1 WRs: Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts

    Pierre Garcon is positioned as the 49ers' clear No. 1 receiver, which means he's in line for a lot of shadow coverage by star corners. His schedule includes meetings with Peterson (twice), Sherman (twice), Johnson, Norman, Bradberry, Davis and the strong Giants, Texans and Jaguars cornerback units. It's possible Garcon is bailed out some by working in the slot, but he moved inside only 18 percent of the time in Washington last season, and current 49ers coach/former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan limited Julio Jones to 27 percent of his routes from the slot in 2016. Garcon should be downgraded.

    New Rams No. 1 wideout Sammy Watkins will have his hands full in his first season with the team. Potential shadow matchups include Peterson (twice), Sherman (twice), Jenkins, Norman, Davis and Xavier Rhodes, in addition to meetings with tough cornerback groups in Jacksonville and Houston. The Rams' No. 2 receiver (likely Robert Woods) would then benefit from the league's sixth-easiest slate against No. 2 receivers (facing Justin Bethel instead of Peterson can go a long way).

    Toughest slates for No. 2 WRs: New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers

    The Jets' wide receiver depth chart is still being sorted out, but Tyrell Williams seems fairly settled as the Chargers' No. 2 option behind Keenan Allen. Williams will need to deal with some of the best secondary corners in the NFL with the Broncos (twice), Patriots, Giants and Jaguars on tap. For what it's worth, each of those five matchups comes prior to Week 11, which suggests he could be a buy low in time for the fantasy playoffs.

    Toughest slates for slot WRs: San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Rams

    Jeremy Kerley, Tyler Boyd, Eric Decker and Cooper Kupp are the projected slot receivers for the teams listed here and not previously mentioned. Each will face tough opposition in 2017.

    Toughest slates for primary left WRs: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens

    Antonio Brown is the Steelers' primary left wide receiver (47 percent of his routes), but Pittsburgh's schedule won't lead to many shadow situations against top corners for Brown. Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace each ran the largest percentage of their routes wide to the left last season, but all four figure to play both sides often in 2017.

    Toughest slates for primary right WRs: Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans

    Michael Crabtree is the Raiders' primary right wideout (51 percent), whereas Amari Cooper is usually to the left (59 percent). Oakland is also tied for the third-hardest schedule for No. 2 receivers, so Crabtree is looking at a tough slate. Yes, he has led the team in most receiving categories the past few years, but defenses have prioritized Cooper when determining shadow game plans.

    Best Cornerback Units
    RANK TEAM PLAYERS
    1 DEN Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, Lorenzo Doss
    2 NYG Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Michael Hunter
    3 JAX Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Aaron Colvin, Jalen Myrick
    4 ATL Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, Brian Poole
    5 LAC Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Trovon Reed
    6 NE Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones
    7 MIN Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander
    8 ARZ Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Justin Bethel, Brandon Williams
    9 PIT Ross Cockrell, Artie Burns, William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh
    10 HST Johnathan Joseph, Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, Robert Nelson
    11 CIN Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Josh Shaw, William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard
    12 BLT Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Boykin, Lardarius Webb
    13 CAR James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Captain Munnerlyn, Corn Elder
    14 SEA Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane, Shaq Griffin, Bradley McDougald, Deshawn Shead
    15 OAK Sean Smith, David Amerson, Gareon Conley, TJ Carrie
    16 KC Marcus Peters, Steven Nelson, Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines
     

  20. #20  
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    Steelers' James Conner, Martavis Bryant make case for fantasy relevance
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/21/17

    A pair of intriguing young Pittsburgh Steelers absent from the team’s preseason opener participated in the second game, a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon, and it will be interesting to see if and how fantasy owners react. Rookie running back James Conner turned his 21 touches into 101 total yards, while wide receiver Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 23 yards. Most fantasy owners know about Bryant, a terrific but troubled talent, while Conner is the potential handcuff for superstar Le’Veon Bell.

    Conner, who starred locally at the University of Pittsburgh and has overcome Hodgkin lymphoma and a major knee injury, was a third-round pick by the Steelers in the spring and is battling veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis for the No. 2 running back role. On this team, that’s obviously important. Bell is awesome and going first overall in ESPN average live drafts -- I’d take Bell second -- but with each week he continues his holdout, fantasy owners get concerned. Plus, Bell has missed considerable action due to injury and suspension.

    DeAngelo Williams, currently looking for employment, was the beneficiary of Bell’s September absence last season, averaging nearly 30 PPR points the first two weeks on a huge Bell-like workload at age 33. Conner, 22, is fighting for the opportunity to do the same should Bell somehow not be available when games start in September. That seems unlikely, but injuries happen. Bell’s contract situation should get worked out soon, and as of now he’s healthy. Perhaps Bell just doesn’t feel like practicing. Conner’s heavy workload Sunday might mean nothing, but Toussaint handled only two rushing attempts. This could be the important hierarchy, and if so, those who select Bell really should target Conner as a handcuff after round 10 as well.

    As for Bryant, seeking likely reinstatement to the NFL after missing the 2016 season for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, few question his dynamic, on-field talent. He’s scored 15 touchdowns in 21 career games. Eight scores came in his rookie season of 2014, as he averaged more than 21 yards per reception. The touchdown rate will be difficult to sustain and he’s not likely to pile on the receptions since Antonio Brown and Bell do. We’re also likely to never have complete confidence that Bryant can avoid future suspensions. Presuming he’s deemed eligible to play Week 1, he could surely be a top-30 wide receiver, so keep abreast of the news.

    QB thoughts from the weekend: The top quarterbacks either aren’t participating in games or are playing sparingly. For example, the Steelers didn’t use Ben Roethlisberger. There’s no need. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars need to use their “top” guys. Blake Bortles continues to struggle, though it’s worth pointing out that the organization doesn’t have some hotshot rookie awaiting opportunity. It’s veteran Chad Henne. Why does this matter? Well, to be fair, Bortles has ended up a top-10 fantasy quarterback the past two seasons. He’s currently ranked outside the staff top 20. And a switch to Henne could actually aid wide receiver Allen Robinson. … Buffalo Bills starter Tyrod Taylor continues to struggle, but it would be more surprising if he lost the role to rookie Nathan Peterman. Taylor threw two interceptions at Philadelphia on Thursday. … Game No. 2 for Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson was a struggle and veteran Tom Savage was 8-of-9, so that should quiet talk of Watson starting Week 1. He’s still enticing in dynasty formats, though.

    RB thoughts from the weekend: The Kansas City Chiefs are likely to go with veteran Spencer Ware to start Week 1, even as rookie Kareem Hunt flashes his considerable skills. On Saturday, Hunt ran eight times for 40 yards and caught three passes for 23 yards. Hunt could take the starting role soon, so be prepared. Charcandrick West had the big statistical performance, breaking a 50-yard run and rushing for 113 yards, but he did so late in the game with backups. … C.J. Anderson figures to start for the Broncos in September, but rookie De’Angelo Henderson -- an overlooked sixth-round pick from Coastal Carolina -- continues to impress and could vault to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart over injured Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles, who might not even make the team. Henderson had 50 total yards against the 49ers on Saturday and had a touchdown called back. … There’s been nowhere to run for Philadelphia Eagles starter LeGarrette Blount, and his 17 rushing yards on nine carries has some speculating he could get cut. That seems unlikely at this point. The Eagles haven’t played yet with the full complement of their offensive line and Blount doesn’t have a long history of big statistical preseasons. … DeMarco Murray did not suit up for the Tennessee Titans, but second-year man Derrick Henry scored two touchdowns, though he turned his 16 carries into a mere 36 yards. Murray owners shouldn’t be worried about this, though Henry is a wise handcuff. David Fluellen, who has been around for years but with nary a rushing attempt, totaled 91 yards from scrimmage on 12 chances and could be the team’s No. 3 running back.

    WR/TE thoughts from the weekend: Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin decided he wanted no part of the rebuilding Buffalo Bills, so he simply announced his retirement Sunday night. A logical fantasy reaction to this news is to move rookie Zay Jones up in the rankings and perhaps Jordan Matthews as well. Preseason game No. 3 could be interesting to see whether Andre Holmes or Rod Streater can establish himself on the outside as well. Don’t ignore this passing offense. … Speaking of, perhaps we’re all underestimating the Los Angeles Rams offense. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff was 16-for-20 and his main target was rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who scored a touchdown on the first drive and had 70 receiving yards overall. Newcomer Sammy Watkins did play and obviously attracts defensive attention. It’s too early to consider Kupp a must-own in a standard league, but it’s also too early to simply dismiss Goff and this offense simply because of last season. … Veteran receiver Bruce Ellington worked well with Texans starter Savage, turning four catches into 93 yards. Jaelen Strong caught a short touchdown pass and continues to battle Braxton Miller, who did not suit up, to start opposite DeAndre Hopkins. … Washington second-year man Josh Doctson is recovered from his hamstring injury and caught one pass for 12 yards. If Doctson plays well next week, he could earn a starting role. Finally, tight end Jordan Reed did not play this weekend but was activated off the PUP list, so he can join team practices. Reed is going as fantasy’s No. 3 tight end, having fallen behind the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce in ESPN ADP this weekend.
     

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    Offensive line rankings: Which players are affected the most in fantasy?
     

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    Offensive line rankings: Which players are affected the most in fantasy?
    KC Joyner
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/22/17


    NOTE: The rankings in this column have been updated since it's original publish date in June.

    Hall of Fame general manager Jim Finks once said, "A running back in the NFL is only as good as his blocking will let him be." This same rule applies to the passing game, as quarterbacks had an abysmal 29.1 Total QBR last season on plays in which they were under pass rush pressure.

    Despite its importance, the fantasy football world has a significant gap in measuring the impact that blocking has on fantasy production.

    That's about to change, as I have put together new blocking grading system designed to help fantasy owners identify the impact each team's offensive blockers are likely to have on fantasy prospects during the 2017 campaign.


    The system uses a weighted bell curve structure largely revolving around multiple advanced metrics in both pass and run blocking.

    For pass blocking, there is a significant emphasis for giving the quarterback a clean passing pocket, but notable value is also credited for preventing the quarterback from being sacked and/or hit by defenders. These elements are important in fantasy football because -- with help from the ESPN Stats & Info database -- quarterbacks are 60 percent more productive and pass catchers are 58 percent more productive on plays when the quarterback has a clean pocket.

    A large portion of the run blocking grade is based on my good blocking rate (GBR) metric, which measures how often a ball carrier is given good run blocking, roughly defined as the offense not allowing the defense to disrupt a rush attempt. GBR is important because good blocking carries are usually worth five times as many fantasy points as bad blocking carries.

    The system also awards substantial value for personnel stability. NFL teams are projected to return 75.7 percent of their starting offensive line snaps from last year, and that number doesn't include 2016 starters from who have been shifted to backup roles on their same clubs. This shows NFL teams do place a heavy emphasis on keeping offensive lines together and illustrates why the personnel stability metric is important.

    Another grade element is teams with stable measurements in multiple metrics will rate higher in that area than teams whose overall metric grades are equivalent but who reach that level with a more volatile set of metrics.

    Pass blocking accounts for 40 percent of the overall grade, run blocking 30 percent and stability/consistency 30 percent. The system uses an A-F grade scale similar to the one we all remember from our school days.

    Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at how each team's blockers are slated to fare during the 2017 season.

    1. Pittsburgh Steelers

    Overall grade: A

    Pass blocking: A
    Run blocking: A-
    Stability/consistency: A
    Schedule: A-

    The Steelers are the only team in this analysis to have "A" grades in all four categories. The elite run blocking grade adds to Le'Veon Bell's value, but it also makes the winner of Pittsburgh's backup running back job (either James Conner or Fitzgerald Toussaint) a high percentage bench stash or handcuff. The upper-tier pass blocking should help alleviate concerns about Ben Roethlisberger making it through the season injury-free.

    2. Chicago Bears

    Overall grade: A-

    Pass blocking: A-
    Run blocking: B+
    Stability/consistency: A-
    Schedule: A

    The Bears ranked seventh last season in ESPN Stats & Information's pass protection metric (PPM) that measures how often an offense controls the line of scrimmage on a dropback (50.4 percent). This helped Chicago rank eighth in sacks per dropback (4.7 percent). The Bears' ability to create huge gaps in defenses led to Jordan Howard ranking tied for third in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric (10.3). Chicago returns four starters from last year's offensive line and has an "A" schedule grade, so a repeat of these top-notch metrics is highly probable.

    3. New Orleans Saints

    Overall grade: A-

    Pass blocking: A-
    Run blocking: A
    Stability/consistency: B
    Schedule: C

    As might be expected for a Drew Brees team, the Saints had the best pass pressure rating allowed in the league (17.4 percent). What is surprising is that New Orleans also ranked tied for the best run blocking grade in part due to placing fourth in GBR (42.8 percent). If center Max Unger returns from his offseason foot surgery in time for Week 1 (as is currently projected), the Saints should be able to repeat this upper-tier performance.

    4. Tennessee Titans

    Overall grade: B+

    Pass blocking: B+
    Run blocking: A-
    Stability/consistency: A-
    Schedule: B+

    Tennessee made the jump from the worst GBR in 2015 (30.8 percent) to the second best GBR in 2016 (43.7 percent). The Titans were nearly as good in pass blocking, as they ranked fifth in PPM (50.9 percent). They return all five offensive line starters this season so DeMarco Murray should get plenty of assistance in repeating last year's superb fantasy production. The caveat is the Titans ranked 23rd in dropback hit percentage (how often their quarterback was hit by the defense on a dropback) so Marcus Mariota could have more durability problems if this issue isn't resolved.

    5. Washington Redskins

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: A
    Run blocking: C+
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: D-

    Washington placed tied for the best overall pass blocking grade due to ranking first in PPM (52.0 percent), fourth in sack rate (3.6 percent) and tied for sixth in dropback hit rate (7.8 percent). Add five returning offensive line starters to the mix and it should allow Kirk Cousins, Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Jordan Reed to continue to produce superb fantasy numbers despite the D-minus schedule grade.

    6. Philadelphia Eagles

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: B+
    Run blocking: A-
    Stability/consistency: B
    Schedule: D-

    The Eagles ranked third in GBR last year (43.2 percent) despite having road-grading offensive tackle Lane Johnson out of the lineup for 10 games. His return should help the Eagles keep their run-blocking prowess at or near an elite level. Johnson could also improve the already strong pass blocking, as Philadelphia ranked seventh in pocket time allowed on vertical passes (2.7 seconds on aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield). This trait should give Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith plenty of time to get open downfield.

    7. Houston Texans

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: B
    Run blocking: B
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: C

    The Texans' blocking wall wasn't dominant in any area, but they had only three metrics with a grade rating of lower than "B" and only one grade under the "C" level. This elite consistency should provide Houston's running backs with plenty of blocking assistance. It also could help Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson get DeAndre Hopkins much closer to his formerly superb vertical receiving production level.

    8. Oakland Raiders

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: A-
    Run blocking: B-
    Stability/consistency: B
    Schedule: D-

    Oakland had the best sack rate allowed in the league last year (2.9 percent) and ranked fourth in PPM (51.0 percent), so consider Derek Carr's broken ankle an anomaly unlikely to recur. The Raiders do bring back all five offensive line starters, but mid-tier run blocking numbers (39.2 GBR, ranked 14th), a D-minus grade in screen blocking and a D-minus schedule grade cap this group's overall rating.

    9. Atlanta Falcons

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: B-
    Run blocking: A
    Stability/consistency: B
    Schedule: D

    The Falcons had a volatile set of pass blocking metrics, as they ranked 24th in both dropback pass rush pressure allowed (29.8 percent) and sack rate allowed (6.3 percent), yet still had the third highest pocket time on vertical throws (2.8 seconds). A 41.7 percent GBR (ranked eighth) and 2.9-yard rushing average before first defensive contact (ranked third) illustrates their ground game expertise. The return of four starters should keep Atlanta's blocking at or near this level in 2017.

    10. New England Patriots

    Overall grade: B

    Pass blocking: B
    Run blocking: C
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: B+

    The return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia helped solidify the Patriots blocking and helped New England place tied for ninth in dropback hit rate (9.1 percent). Returning all five offensive line starters should help Tom Brady get the most out of new home run threat Brandin Cooks, but the mediocre run blocking grade suggests Patriots running backs will still be a fantasy owner's nightmare.

    11. Kansas City Chiefs

    Overall grade: B-

    Pass blocking: C
    Run blocking: B+
    Stability/consistency: B-
    Schedule: B+

    The dink-and-dunk nature of the Chiefs' passing game usually leads to good pass blocking, but Kansas City's No. 25 ranking in PPM (46.5 percent) and No. 31 mark in pocket time on vertical throws (2.4 seconds) held their grade down in this area. A 40.4 percent GBR (ranked ninth) and four returning starting offensive linemen should keep Kansas City fantasy running back values in good shape.

    12. Cincinnati Bengals

    Overall grade: B-

    Pass blocking: D+
    Run blocking: B-
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: A

    Cincinnati's "D" or lower grades in sack rate, pass protection and time in pocket on vertical passes means it could be it difficult for the Bengals to get the most out of A.J. Green, John Ross or Andy Dalton. One potential positive trait is the No. 11 ranking in GBR (39.9 percent) could mitigate downside for drafting Jeremy Hill or Joe Mixon. The "A" schedule grade should also prove beneficial.

    13. Dallas Cowboys

    Overall grade: B-

    Pass blocking: B
    Run blocking: A-
    Stability/consistency: C-
    Schedule: D-

    This grade may seem like a big surprise, but consider how Dallas got here. Their run blocking is as strong as advertised, but their pass blocking wasn't at an equivalent level. The Cowboys did place sixth in PPM (50.5 percent), but they also ranked 25th in both pressure rate allowed (30.2 percent) and dropback hit rate (13.3 percent). Those erratic metrics, when combined with Dallas ranking 24th in percentage of returning primary starting offensive linemen snaps from last season (61.3 percent) and the D-minus schedule grade, led to this group falling just outside of the top 10.

    14. Jacksonville Jaguars

    Overall grade: B-

    Pass blocking: B-
    Run blocking: C-
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: A-

    Prospective Leonard Fournette fantasy owners won't be happy seeing the C-minus run grade brought about in part by a No. 21 rank in GBR (36.3 percent). What they will like is four returning offensive line starters, an A-minus schedule, an A-minus grade in metric consistency and second-round draft pick Cam Robinson helping raise the run blocking grade in 2017.

    15. New York Giants

    Overall grade: B-

    Pass blocking: B+
    Run blocking: D+
    Stability/consistency: C+
    Schedule: D

    The Giants blockers took a lot of heat from pundits last season, but let's not forget that Big Blue had the lowest dropback hit percentage (5.1), ranked fourth in pass pressure rate allowed (20.7 percent) and was third in sack rate allowed (3.5). The D-plus run blocking grade is a hindrance for Giants running backs, while New York's No. 28 ranking in pocket time on vertical passes (2.5 seconds) could cap Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall's fantasy projections.

    16. Green Bay Packers

    Overall grade: C+

    Pass blocking: B+
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: D+
    Schedule: A-

    The combination of a D-minus grade in run blocking and a B-plus grade in pass blocking were major factors in Aaron Rodgers setting a career high in single-season pass attempts (610). That wide grade variance led to the D-plus in stability/consistency despite Green Bay returning four starters and adding guard Jahri Evans in free agency. The Packers had the best screen pass blocking grade in the league last year, so look for Green Bay to continue to use that element quite heavily to augment their rushing attack.

    17. Cleveland Browns

    Overall grade: C+

    Pass blocking: D-
    Run blocking: A
    Stability/consistency: F
    Schedule: A

    One of the most surprising metrics from last season was Cleveland ranking sixth in GBR (42.0 percent). Before using that as a reason to draft Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson as upside picks, fantasy owners should note that the Browns rank 30th in percentage of returning starting offensive linemen snaps (42.3 percent) and were one of only two teams to earn an "F" grade in stability/consistency. The offseason offensive line additions might result in another "A" run blocking grade in Hue Jackson's power rushing system and the "A" schedule grad won't hurt, but it could also take some time for the offensive line to gel.

    18. Baltimore Ravens

    Overall grade: C+

    Pass blocking: B-
    Run blocking: C
    Stability/consistency: F
    Schedule: A

    Baltimore placed seventh in sack rate last year (4.6 percent), but also ranked 27th in pocket time on vertical passes (2.5 seconds) and tied for 23rd in PPM (47.1 percent). This type of inconsistency is why the Ravens overhauled their offensive line, as no team returns a lower percentage of their starting offensive linemen snaps (40.1 percent). If the offensive line personnel plan works and the "A" schedule grade helps matters, look for Baltimore to drop Joe Flacco's pass volume by at least 100 attempts and convert those into carries for Terrance West and Danny Woodhead.

    19. Buffalo Bills

    Overall grade: C+

    Pass blocking: D+
    Run blocking: A-
    Stability/consistency: D-
    Schedule: B-

    This was the most hit-miss blocking wall in the league last year. The Bills placed first in pocket time on vertical passes (2.9 seconds), but had the worst dropback hit rate (24.6 percent). They were tied for the worst screen pass blocking grade (F), yet had the fifth highest GBR (42.1 percent). This maddening inconsistency is why the Bills had a D-minus grade in stability/consistency despite returning four starters. Fantasy owners can probably rely on the run blocking for LeSean McCoy, but otherwise should consider this blocking wall untrustworthy.

    20. Carolina Panthers

    Overall grade: C

    Pass blocking: D-
    Run blocking: C+
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: B-

    Carolina's No. 30 ranking in dropback hit percentage (18.8) helped lead to the D-minus pass blocking grade and provides impetus for the Panthers to reduce Cam Newton's career high in pass attempts per game from last season (34.0). The C-plus run blocking grade could hinder Christian McCaffrey's production, but returning four offensive line starters and adding a powerful draft prospect in tackle Taylor Moton could push the run blocking to greater heights in 2017.

    21. Minnesota Vikings

    Overall grade: C

    Pass blocking: C+
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: D+
    Schedule: A

    A revolving door of offensive linemen resulted in Minnesota ranking next to last in yards per rush before first defensive contact (1.7). The Vikings return only two offensive line starters and 41.0 percent of their offensive line starter snaps (ranked 31st), which is a primary reason why they have a D-plus stability/consistency grade. The offseason free agency and draft acquisitions on the offensive line should result in somewhat improved run blocking, so fantasy owners shouldn't go overboard in dropping Dalvin Cook's fantasy value.

    22. Detroit Lions

    Overall grade: C

    Pass blocking: C+
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: C+
    Schedule: B-

    The Lions do a solid job of keeping Matthew Stafford protected, as they ranked 12th in pass pressure allowed (25.4 percent) and 14th in dropback hit rate (10.3 percent). Detroit has terrible run blocking outside of its "B" grade in screen pass blocking, as the Lions ranked 27th in GBR (34.1 percent). They return only 57.4 percent of their primary starting offensive linemen snaps (ranked 26th), but the additions of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner to the right side of their line could help the Lions improve on last year's performance.

    23. Miami Dolphins

    Overall grade: C

    Pass blocking: C
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: C-

    The Dolphins' run blocking was bad across the board, as Miami ranked 28th in GBR (34.0 percent) and was one of only three teams to earn an "F" grade in screen pass blocking. A No. 24 ranking in dropback hit percentage (13.1) means Ryan Tannehill could be an injury risk. This group could see significant improvement if center Mike Pouncey returns to full-time status after registering only 287 snaps last season.

    24. Arizona Cardinals

    Overall grade: C

    Pass blocking: D+
    Run blocking: C+
    Stability/consistency: D+
    Schedule: C

    The Bruce Arians vertical passing system puts a lot of pressure on its offensive linemen and this group wasn't up to the task. The Cardinals placed tied for 29th in PPM (45.4 percent) and tied for 23rd in pocket time on vertical passes (2.5). Arizona returns four starting offensive linemen, but two of those players will be moving to different positions. A No. 24 rank in GBR (34.5 percent) didn't keep David Johnson from being an elite fantasy running back last year, but this group gives him a lower production ceiling than he would have with a stronger offensive line.

    25. San Francisco 49ers

    Overall grade: C-

    Pass blocking: D-
    Run blocking: C+
    Stability/consistency: B+
    Schedule: F

    The Chip Kelly pass blocking system fell apart last year, as the 49ers ranked next to last in dropback hit rate (21.0 percent) and 29th in sack rate (8.0 percent). On a positive note, San Francisco did place 14th in PPM (48.4 percent). The 49ers return 82 percent of their primary offensive linemen starter snaps from last year, so Kyle Shanahan will have a lot of building blocks to try to implement the system that worked so well in Atlanta last season, but the "F" schedule grade will hinder every 49ers fantasy prospect.

    26. Los Angeles Chargers

    Overall grade: C-

    Pass blocking: C+
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: D-
    Schedule: B+

    One of the most amazing feats in fantasy football last year was Melvin Gordon racking up 250.6 fantasy points despite getting good blocking on only 28.1 percent of his carries (next to last among running backs with 100 or more carries). That indicates Gordon can be an impact player regardless of whether or not new head coach Anthony Lynn's wholesale offensive line changes (including replacing three offensive line starters) have a positive impact this season.

    27. New York Jets

    Overall grade: D+

    Pass blocking: C+
    Run blocking: C-
    Stability/consistency: D
    Schedule: F

    The Jets have some solid pass protection metrics, but no team in the league gave its quarterbacks less pocket time on vertical passes (2.4 seconds). That hinders the limited fantasy wide receiver prospects that remain on the Jets' roster. The run blocking is apt to be just as mediocre, as New York ranked 23rd in GBR (34.5 percent). The Jets' blocking inconsistencies are so bad that they have the fifth-lowest stability/consistency rate despite returning four offensive line starters.

    28. Denver Broncos

    Overall grade: D+

    Pass blocking: D
    Run blocking: F
    Stability/consistency: C
    Schedule: A-

    The uncertainty at quarterback will make many fantasy owners think twice before drafting a Broncos pass catcher and the nearly ubiquitous subpar pass blocking metrics will add to that hesitation. Denver's No. 31 rank in GBR (33.2 percent) may be part of why they are making a change from a zone blocking scheme to a gap blocking scheme. That latter system may not be the best fit for Denver's running backs, so fantasy owners may want to think twice about investment costs for any Broncos player.

    29. Indianapolis Colts

    Overall grade: D

    Pass blocking: D
    Run blocking: D
    Stability/consistency: B-
    Schedule: F

    Fantasy owners considering drafting Andrew Luck should note that the Colts ranked 29th in pass pressure rate allowed (34.6 percent), 28th in dropback hit percentage (16.2) and tied for 26th in sack rate (6.6 percent). This group was also one of only three teams to earn an "F" grade in screen pass blocking and placed 20th in GBR (36.7 percent). The Colts do return all five offensive line starters, but a lack of quality blocking and a brutal schedule cap the value of that metric.

    30. Los Angeles Rams

    Overall grade: D-

    Pass blocking: D-
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: B
    Schedule: F

    D-minus grades in pass and run blocking led the Rams to replace three starting offensive linemen and return only 42.6 percent of their starting offensive linemen snaps (ranked 28th). The blocking uncertainty does hinder Todd Gurley's fantasy value, but the addition of offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and tackle Andrew Whitworth could help the Rams take a forward step in blocking this year.

    31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Overall grade: D-

    Pass blocking: D-
    Run blocking: D-
    Stability/consistency: C
    Schedule: D+

    Tampa Bay has been rightfully lauded for adding DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard to this offense, but maybe they should have done more to help the offensive line. The Buccaneers ranked tied for 29th in both PPM (45.4 percent) and pressure rate allowed (34.6 percent). Tampa Bay also placed last in yards per rush before first defensive contact (1.7) and 29th in GBR (33.7 percent). All of those metrics hinder the value of returning four offensive line starters and add significant risk to fantasy owners looking to this team for upside plays.

    32. Seattle Seahawks

    Overall grade: D-

    Pass blocking: F
    Run blocking: C
    Stability/consistency: D
    Schedule: D-

    The Seahawks were the only team to land an "F" rating in pass blocking, as they ranked dead last in both pass pressure rate (36.3 percent) and PPM (41.3 percent). This led to Seattle ranking 30th in pocket time on vertical passes (2.4 seconds). Their run blocking wasn't that much better, as the Seahawks placed 26th in GBR (34.2 percent). The one positive note is Seattle did get an "A" grade in screen pass blocking. The atrocious pass blocking performance has led to Seattle moving back to their run-heavy ways, so consider Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham to have relatively low play volume ceilings this year.
     

  23. #23  
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    Ty Montgomery, Bilal Powell among favorites to break out at running back
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/23/17

    Fantasy football owners sure didn’t seem too interested in Chargers running back Melvin Gordon last season, as many running backs, five tight ends and even a defense were selected earlier in ESPN ADP, and the reason is because his rookie year didn’t go well. Gordon starred in college at Wisconsin, but entered Year 2 in the NFL with an undeserved reputation that he couldn’t score touchdowns, couldn’t be an effective pass catcher and couldn’t stay healthy. Then he went and proved everyone wrong -- breaking out into a star -- and now he’s a top-10 running back in ESPN ADP.


    Gordon’s story reminds us of several important factors when trying to determine potential breakout players. First, we know pretty much everyone in the NFL has starred in this sport at some point, so anyone with opportunity can prove they belong and show their upside. Some were first-round selections like Gordon and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, others like Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard were later-round choices, perhaps a bit forgotten. But Gordon, Elliott and Howard all broke out as stars during the 2017 season. We knew they had skills, but when opportunity knocks, some players step up, even ones who had struggled in the past. Others need another year or three.

    We covered the quarterback breakouts and now it’s time for running back, a position chock full of talent, but certainly a tad lacking in reliable options to build fantasy rosters around. Oh, there are certainly 10 or so running backs we know and mostly love, and then a bunch of rookies regarded as RB2 choices and then, well, take your chances. Some will break out, but most will not. Gordon was mentioned prominently in this space a year ago and yeah, that went well! Miami’s Jay Ajayi was also mentioned and that went well, but then again, Washington’s Matt Jones and Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, eh, not so much.

    The unwritten rules of these annual breakout blog entries state -- in my mind, at least -- that anyone who hasn’t broken out yet to one of the levels below is technically in play, and there are different standards of statistical prowess. In addition, we don’t consider rookies here. They get plenty of coverage in other blog entries! I happen to like quite a few of the running back rookies this season, especially as compared to other positions, but they have neither succeeded nor failed at this highest level yet, so using the term breakout for them isn’t like it is for a veteran few are thinking about. This is all based on value and expectations, and in some cases there are no expectations, which make the breakouts even better.

    Potential top-10 PPR breakout

    Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns: Crowell’s third NFL season was his best, as he averaged 4.8 yards per rush and more than doubled his reception total, and all for a miserable offense. The Browns have built up the offensive line a bit and might not be as miserable, and that should help Crowell topple 1,000 rushing yards and be a worthy RB2 at the least.

    Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers: A repeat entrant on this list, Hyde puts up numbers when he plays, but injuries make him a risk even for safe RB2 status. Of course, the upside is obvious. The 49ers brought in several rookies to push him, along with Tim Hightower to catch passes, and this seems like a make-or-break year for Hyde. Sometimes that’s all the motivation needed, really.

    Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers: The former wide receiver adapted well to being the team’s top running back and while he too will have to deal with younger competition, this isn’t an offense like the Browns or 49ers, either. The Packers have a Hall of Fame quarterback. Montgomery’s yards per rush figures to drop some with more work, but with an offseason to prepare for the rigors of running back duty, there’s major upside, too.

    Bilal Powell, New York Jets: Someone has to generate offense for this team and Powell, a reserve for five years, finally got his chance in 2016 and looked great doing so. Powell could always catch passes, but he also averaged 5.5 yards per carry on his 131 chances. Matt Forte is still around, but seeing how Powell carried fantasy owners in December, he’s the better option. Remember, Danny Woodhead finished as a top-five PPR player two seasons ago. One does not need to rush for 1,000 yards to achieve great value.

    Potential top-20 PPR breakout

    Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions: His third season will be an important one, since the former second-round pick from Nebraska underachieved statistically as a rookie with opportunity, then couldn’t even make it to October last season before a foot injury tripped him up. The Lions have Theo Riddick to catch passes but need Abdullah, who was on this list last year and possesses the same skills and upside, to stay on the field.

    Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens brought in Woodhead to catch the passes and that figures to work out well if he’s healthy, regardless of whether quarterback Joe Flacco can overcome his back woes. Woodhead’s career high in rushing attempts is 106. With Kenneth Dixon out of the picture, West should get plenty of touches and perhaps his first 1,000-yard campaign.

    Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots: It sure is crowded in that backfield! However, Gillislee is a bigger fellow than the relevant others like James White and Dion Lewis, and the former Dolphin and Bill proved adept at finding the end zone in 2016, with nine scores on barely 100 touches. I’m not saying he’ll do what departed LeGarrette Blount (18 touchdowns!) did, but he’s got a shot, and Blount finished top-10, even in PPR and even catching only seven passes.

    Rob Kelley, Washington Redskins: Here is a larger, wider running back capable of achieving 1,000 yards if given opportunity, but again, this is PPR and he won’t be catching passes. He’ll need to hit the end zone, and is certainly capable of doing so.

    Paul Perkins, New York Giants: He looked like the best running back for this club last season as a rookie, but didn’t get many chances. Now he should. It’s really that simple. This offensive line might not be great, but if Perkins gets 200-plus touches -- and he should -- then volume drives the value.

    Deeper-league breakout

    Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles: It’s a bit of a mess in Philly’s backfield, with Blount expected to handle most of the carries and then smaller types fighting for the receptions, but Smallwood enters his second year with a chance to handle carries and receptions if others struggle. And we should point out that Blount is no lock for success, since he’s rarely enjoyed any outside New England.

    Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos: His availability for early September games is in doubt due to a wrist injury, and I’d actually rather recommend a rookie in this spot but can’t because of my silly rules about not naming rookies in this blog entry. (But De’Angelo Henderson looks legit if C.J. Anderson underwhelms again.) We can’t simply dismiss Booker, but he looked more appealing in July.

    C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks: He’s the pass catcher in Seattle’s backfield, but watching the uninspired play of Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy last season and this month, one wonders if Prosise simply gets the chance to do everything himself.

    Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: There’s a top-10 running back in his way, but if something happens to DeMarco Murray the bulldozing Henry should at least accumulate touchdowns.

    Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins: Much like Henry, here’s another big Alabama product behind one of the better running backs in the game. And as with Murray, we can find reasons for concern. Ajayi rushed for 200 yards in three different games last season, which was awesome and nearly half his season total, but that means he wasn’t so great in other games.

    DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders: For those concerned that Marshawn Lynch won’t be so great after coming out of retirement, it means Washington and Jalen Richard could be relevant. Washington appears to be ahead on the current depth chart. Combined, these fellows ran 170 times -- split nearly evenly -- for 958 yards, a robust 5.6 yards per tote. The Raiders have options.
     

  24. #24  
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    Carson Wentz leads way among quarterback breakouts
    Eric Karabell
    8/23/17

    Fantasy football owners should be conditioned to be wary of rookie quarterbacks by this point, but when passers chosen with the highest of real-life draft picks get to Year 2, things change. We saw it in the interest level of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Jameis Winston and Tennessee Titans icon Marcus Mariota, the first two picks in the 2015 draft. They were actually solid as rookies, and while only Mariota improved for fantasy purposes his second season, fantasy owners were obviously intrigued by them and their bright futures.

    A year later, the top two picks in the NFL draft were Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, and each is expected to make strides this season, but only one of them appears intriguing for impatient fantasy rosters, and that’s for formats deeper than 10-team leagues. Then again, what if each of them took strides to greater fantasy relevance? We’ll take a deeper look in this space, because for some the term “breaking out” can mean dreaming, too. As with sleepers and busts and the rarely-understood-for-context term of “do not draft,” this can be interpreted myriad ways.

    As a result, we’ll separate the levels of dreaming into sections. Wentz’s breakout might not end up in the same place as others. Also, no rookies are included. Dak Prescott broke out in 2016 but he had never played in the league before, so what did he break out from, college? Ordinary expectations? It would be tough to predict more breaking out from him for 2017, though it is, of course, possible. After all, I believe Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr and Tyrod Taylor have already broken out, since they were top-10 quarterbacks -- or darn close to it -- in 2016, but would it be a total shock if any or all pushed through the top-five QB door?

    So let’s start “breakout” week in this blog space with the passers, and remember it’s always about value first. Any statistical breakout needs proper context based on past results and expectations in combination with value. These players have yet to reach the level being dreamt about, so let’s all start dreaming -- because on occasion, even in fantasy football, these dreams come true.

    Potential top-10 breakout

    Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans: They’ll be linked together for a long time, so it’s reasonable to do so here. Each came close to the top 10 last season as they further developed. Winston scored fewer fantasy points, but only because the rushing touchdowns predictably dropped. He actually got better overall, as did Mariota. And each quarterback has more weapons this season, as the Buccaneers signed legitimate deep threat DeSean Jackson and the Titans drafted exciting Corey Davis and signed proven Eric Decker. I think Winston is more likely to make the big leap, as he already throws well downfield and durability is less in question, but each is tempting.

    Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles: The North Dakota State product wasn’t supposed to start as a rookie, but all of a sudden the Sam Bradford trade forced him into the role and he made everyone look good in September. Then, not coincidentally, when right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended, Wentz wasn’t so good. The tools are there for big numbers, however. Wentz has a strong, accurate arm and the mobility to escape trouble, and the Eagles, with arguably the worst set of wide receivers a season ago, now employ proven Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Wentz could definitely add 10 touchdown passes to his ledger, and that would make him fantasy-relevant this season.

    Potential top-20 breakout

    Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams: There’s no sugarcoating his performance as a rookie once he finally had the opportunity to play, and it should be made crystal clear that real-life draft status means little once you’re in the league. Well, it means you might get more chances to perform, but guarantees nothing statistically. Goff does have the tools to succeed and the Rams have a new coach and approach, plus several new wide receivers who can go downfield. Remember, Oakland’s Derek Carr rarely threw the ball downfield as a rookie (5.5 passing yards per attempt) because that was the game plan and he had nobody to throw to. Then he broke out in Year 2 and people acted surprised. While I don’t necessarily expect this, Goff certainly can succeed, and nobody is thinking of him in 10- and 12-teamers.

    Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos: Perhaps he’s earned starter status simply because Paxton Lynch hasn’t, but Siemian wasn’t far from top-20 status last season in his first bit of playing time. He missed two games but otherwise was useful, especially for 2-QB formats, and there’s nothing wrong with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

    Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers: Laugh all you like about this 31-year-old journeyman, but mostly everything about the 49ers is new from a year ago and in a good way. Plus, Hoyer looked really good for the 2016 Bears, throwing for better than 300 yards in each of his four starts, with six touchdowns and nary an interception before breaking his arm. In 2015 for the Texans, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 19 scores and seven picks. Hoyer-to-Pierre Garcon could pay dividends in deep leagues.

    Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears: His presence in Tampa Bay didn’t dissuade the organization from drafting Winston, and he was already a Bear when the franchise traded a lot for the opportunity to select Mitchell Trubisky, but once upon a time Glennon tossed 19 touchdowns versus nine interceptions as a rookie for the 2013 Bucs. The Trubisky era could start at any point, even prior to Week 1, but if the Bears let Glennon throw downfield, there could be a 3,200-yard passing season ahead.

    Potential 2-QB breakout

    Tom Savage, Houston Texans: A fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Savage has never gotten a chance to play regularly and perhaps there’s a reason for that. After all, the Texans felt so confident this summer they drafted Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the first round. Savage came into the league with the reputation for possessing a strong arm but also for questionable decision-making. The Texans might simply ask him to manage drives and avoid mistakes, but with an intriguing running game and DeAndre Hopkins to throw to, this could work out.

    Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns: Perhaps I’m alone in thinking he’s the best quarterback on the current Browns roster, because it seems he’s got no shot to start Week 1 over underwhelming Brock Osweiler or rookie DeShone Kizer, but let’s see how this plays out. The Browns have a running game, a strong offensive line and intriguing young receivers. I’d prefer to gamble on this offense than that of the Jets.

    Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars: Like Hoyer, he’s not young in football terms, and even if this 32-year-old usurps the starting role from struggling Blake Bortles, he might not be asked to do more than manage drives and avoid turnovers. But the Jaguars have had a top-10 fantasy quarterback the past two seasons. Bortles did that and he wasn’t good. Henne might be no worse than Bortles. The Jaguars want to run and defend, and perhaps that will result in junk points at the end of the fourth quarter, which so many fantasy teams with Bortles and Allen Robinson relied upon.
     

  25. #25  
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    Martavis Bryant among top wide receiver breakouts
    Eric Karabell
    ESPN INSIDER
    8/24/17

    Wide receivers don’t seem to break out as often and mightily as they used to. Oh sure, we saw some excellent and surprising performances at the position last season -- and some of those fellows might even break out into bigger and better things this time around -- but overall it’s not like at running back.

    More rookies matter at running back. There are more training camp battles. There sure seem to be more injuries. At wide receiver, we know the top guys, and in general the top guys perform as expected, with little statistical variance, and there’s ample depth to fill in.

    As we finish up our trio of “breakout” blog entries for the big three fantasy positions (quarterback, running back) it’s a good time to remind fantasy owners that when it comes to wide receiver, you might not have to take many chances. There are many wide receivers to choose from and little need for handcuffing, like at running back. Most veterans have established roles. Most rookies haven’t established much of anything yet, and rookies aren’t eligible for this blog entry.

    Some of the names below might seem to have already broken out, but we’re always looking at levels of excellence, expecting linear improvement. That’s not always the case.

    Potential top-10 PPR breakout

    Terrelle Pryor Sr., Washington Redskins: If this athletic fellow can catch 77 passes for more than 1,000 yards with the mess of Cleveland Browns quarterbacks, then imagine what’s possible with Kirk Cousins looking his way. Pryor finished 20th in PPR scoring among wide receivers and should only improve, perhaps to WR1 status.

    Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders: First thing he needs to do is be the most valuable fantasy wide receiver on his own team, but he’s so laden with talent, expect greatness. Cooper has been close to the top 10 each of his first two seasons. A leap into further stardom, at some point, seems likely.

    Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: He was pretty underwhelming his first two seasons, and he had his opportunities when Jordy Nelson was hurt in 2015, but then Adams emerged as a top-10 PPR provider among wide receivers last year, thanks to his 12 touchdowns. Why can’t this get even better? We like Aaron Rodgers. Adams could cut more into Nelson’s targets this season.

    Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs: It seems like it would be tough for any wide receiver playing with check-down quarterback Alex Smith to produce big numbers, but with Jeremy Maclin gone, the speedy Hill has that chance. He doesn’t figure to get many chances – if any -- in the return game, but if he can improve to 75 catches and 1,000 receiving yards, and score touchdowns, that’s a potential top-10 guy.

    Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers: Perhaps unrelated rookie Mike Williams overcomes his back injury and becomes an instant star, but I’d much rather invest for this season in the Williams who stepped up nicely when Keenan Allen was hurt. This Williams was a top-20 guy last year.

    Potential top-20 PPR breakout

    DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins: A repeater on this list from last season, Parker has battled inconsistency and injuries his first two seasons. The Ryan Tannehill season-ending injury should aid Parker, a downfield threat whom strong-armed Jay Cutler should have more luck finding.

    Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers: Few doubt the talent, but it’s tough to rely on someone with multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. That said, with 15 touchdowns in 21 career games, it’s easy to see the upside, should the league let him play.

    Cameron Meredith, Chicago Bears: Year No. 2 for this undrafted free agent went better than expected, and now he and Kevin White figure to see most of the targets from either Mike Glennon or rookie Mitchell Trubisky. Remember, when those guys get intercepted, it isn’t charged to the wide receivers. I like Meredith over White, as he boasts some track record for performance and health.

    Corey Coleman, Cleveland Browns: Don’t laugh, but a Browns receiver topped 1,000 yards last season, so dare to dream. Well-traveled Kenny Britt was brought in to do what Pryor did, but he’s 28 and Coleman is the exciting Baylor product with blazing speed and athleticism. Perhaps each becomes at least flex-worthy.

    Ted Ginn Jr., New Orleans Saints: It probably sounds ridiculous for this guy to be mentioned here, since he’s 32 and hasn’t approached a 1,000-yard season. But he’s never played with Drew Brees, either. Ginn is a clear home run threat, a DeSean Jackson-type with lesser hands, but he’s likely stepping into the Brandin Cooks role. And Brees is great. Tennessee’s Rishard Matthews went 65-945-9 last season and just missed the PPR top 20 at wide receiver. Ginn has the opportunity to do that.

    Deeper league breakout

    Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers: If you’re a bit down on Kelvin Benjamin, here’s the other likely starter. With Ginn leaving, Funchess has an opportunity to be relevant.

    Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks: Take your pick between Lockett and Paul Richardson, youngsters with upside in an offense that might again find running the ball a problem.

    Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins: He caught two passes as a rookie, but it’s another pass-heavy offense, and he should start on the outside.

    Kevin White, Chicago Bears: The second receiver chosen in the 2015 draft between Cooper and Parker possesses upside, but can he stay on the field?

    Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia Eagles: Here’s the fourth wide receiver chosen in that draft, and he’s been really disappointing so far. But now he’s the slot guy and Carson Wentz is breaking out.

    Braxton Miller, Houston Texans: This team’s passing offense has to improve from last season, and since everyone seems to think Jaelen Strong is better than Miller and I think it’s open for debate, let’s focus on the former Ohio State quarterback.

    J.J. Nelson, Arizona Cardinals: I’m officially off the John Brown bandwagon, as his health is clearly preventing him from a bigger role on Bruce Arians’ team. Someone has to step up! It’s either Nelson or Jaron Brown, and the former has averaged more than 19 yards per reception in his first two seasons, while the latter is coming back from a shredded knee.

    Breshad Perriman, Baltimore Ravens: Dare to dream, right? The Maclin signing couldn’t have helped him, but Perriman should see plenty of chances to emerge.

    Andre Holmes, Buffalo Bills: The former Raiders deep threat should get a chance to start opposite rookie Zay Jones with Jordan Matthews coming from the slot. Tyrod Taylor likes to throw deep.

    Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers: The former Bills deep threat should get a chance to start opposite, and since I actually -- perhaps crazily -- believe Brian Hoyer can surpass 3,500 passing yards, someone’s gotta be on the other end.

    ArDarius Stewart, New York Jets: OK, we will name one rookie because the readers demand it! The former Alabama deep threat is now my first choice, if one must be made, among Jets receivers, albeit late. Faint praise perhaps, but Stewart is a third-round pick coming from a high-powered, well-coached offense to, well … he could be the new Quincy Enunwa, which is what we all strive to become.
     

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