The tried and true draft-day bromide reads as follows: Don’t construct this year’s team around last year’s stats.
It bears repeating (and rephrasing): It’s a new season, and we’re not simply drafting last season’s best team here folks.
Like almost every tangible part of the pro sports world, teams and players are either getting better or getting worse. Hardly anyone or anything stays the same.
And as it so happens, attempting to identify which direction a particular player is trending is precisely our mid-August mission here at The Huddle, and thankfully there are a few telling factors which can aid us in that endeavor.
Players coming off injuries and half or full seasons spent on injured reserve obviously are at the top of the progression list, but we’re going to ignore that low-hanging fruit and focus on last season’s realistically unsustainable stats and the offseason’s most notable team personnel additions and subtractions that portend the respective upswings and downswings of the coming campaign.
A wide receiver with fewer than 100 targets but double-digit touchdown catches a season ago? An obvious candidate to take a fantasy tumble.
A still-in-his-prime free-agent running back jumping to a run-oriented team which significantly upgraded its offensive line over the spring and summer? A prime choice to see a statistical surge.
Sure, not all of the signs are that easy to read, but with a few of the more predictive “hints” in mind, we’ve identified 14 candidates – seven players likely headed up and another seven seemingly headed in the opposite direction – and a handful of others whose fantasy numbers should take measurable and meaningful turns in 2017.
On the upswing
Andy Dalton – The Red Rifle did finish 12th among fantasy quarterbacks a year ago (Huddle Performance scoring), but things could’ve – and should’ve – been even better. Dalton, who had thrown for at least 25 touchdown passes in three of the previous four seasons, tossed a career-low 18 in 2016 – with a career-worst 3.2 TD percentage to match – and much of the blame can be placed on the injury absences of his two top weapons, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed a combined 14 games. Green and Eifert are due for better luck on the health front this season, and as insurance, Cincy spent a top-10 pick on speed-burning wideout John Ross. Yeah, the Bengals’ offensive-line situation is shaky to be certain, but definitely don’t be surprised if Dalton returns to the fantasy top 10 in 2017.
Cam Newton – Like Dalton, his 2011 draft compatriot, Newton’s numbers also took a tumble last season, and the drop-offs were even more pronounced even if they were eminently more predictable. Cam finished with a career-worst 19 TD tosses – down a full 16 from his league-MVP season of 2015 – and he also hit or matched career lows in TD-pass percentage (3.7), yards per passing attempt (6.9) and rushing scores (five, down from 10 the previous year). Overall, of the 20 quarterbacks who attempted at least 500 passes in 2016, Newton joined Dalton, rookie Carson Wentz and Texans free-agent bust Brock Osweiler as the only passers to finish with fewer than 20 TD tosses. So while the statistical signs strongly point toward a progression to the mean for Newton, the addition of versatile rookie weapons in RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Curtis Samuel should just about ensure that Cam returns to the top-10 QB ranks.
Mike Gillislee – Rather quietly, Gillislee was one of the more valuable running-back handcuffs of 2016, totaling 627 yards from scrimmage and scoring nine TDs in back of LeSean McCoy in ground-oriented Buffalo. He’s now been pried away by the AFC East-rival Patriots, but just because he’s joining Tom Brady’s bunch in N.E. doesn’t mean Gillislee’s rushing numbers will take a downturn. In fact, it could mean just the opposite as, believe it or not, the Patriots have rushed for a league-most 92 touchdowns since 2012. A year ago, LeGarrette Blount led the NFL with 18 of ’em, but now he’s off to Philly, leaving Gillislee in what looks to be the lead-back role on one of the league’s more perennially potent offenses.
Lamar Miller – His first year in Houston was far from a complete disaster, but it was no doubt disappointing for the fantasy general managers who used a first-round pick on Miller as he finished the season 17th among running backs with 162 fantasy points on 1,261 total yards and six total TDs. Of the 13 backs with at least 275 touches last season, only Miller and the Rams’ Todd Gurley – each with six apiece – failed to total at least seven scores. And among the 11 players with 250-or-more rushing attempts in 2016, only the Colts’ Frank Gore (four) found his way into the end zone fewer times than Miller’s five. As a team, the Texans finished with all of eight rushing TDs – only the Giants tallied fewer with an anemic six – and even though Houston used a third-round draft pick on Texas RB D’Onta Foreman, Miller’s numbers should see an uptick, particularly if rookie QB DeShaun Watson takes over as the starter and brings another rushing threat to the Texans’ backfield.
Amari Cooper – Will his third season be the proverbial charm for Cooper, who’s posted decent but not elite fantasy figures in his first two Pro Bowl campaigns with the Silver & Black? The stats would seem to say so. Of the 15 wide receivers with 250-plus targets since the start of the 2015 season, only Golden Tate (10) and Jarvis Landry (eight) have tallied fewer TD grabs than Cooper’s 11. And only the Eagles’ Nelson Agholor had more red-zone targets (14) than Cooper’s 13 last season among the players who failed to snare a TD pass inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Sure, fellow wideout Michael Crabtree is still around after two seasons of outpointing Cooper fantasy-wise, but don’t be surprised in the least if this is the season Cooper emerges as the Raiders’ No. 1 wide receiver – in reality and fantasy.
Pierre Garcon – There really aren’t any recent statistical anomalies portending improvement for Garcon in 2017. Rather, it’s the change of scenery for the 31-year-old wideout, who’s going from being another target in a deep D.C. pass-catching corps to what should be the No. 1 wide receiver role in San Fran under new head coach/offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan. As you’ve no doubt heard or remembered, the last season Garcon and Kid Shanny were together – with the Redskins in 2013 – Garcon led the league in targets (181) and receptions (113) while compiling a career-best 1,346 yards and five TDs. Shanahan has a way of bringing out the best in his No. 1 wideouts – see Julio Jones circa 2015-16 and Andre Johnson in 2008-09 – and projected starting QB Brian Hoyer also helped WRs DeAndre Hopkins (2015) and Josh Gordon (2013) to monster seasons in his previous stops. Sure, Garcon isn’t an elite wide receiver by any measure, but with the likes of Jeremy Kerley, Marquise Goodwin, Aaron Burbridge and Aldrick Robinson providing the chief competition for WR targets, it’s hard not to envision bigger and better things by the Bay for Garcon this coming season.
Greg Olsen – OK, we acknowledge that Olsen is 32 and may indeed be on the downside of a standout career, but if Newton (see above) is headed for a bounce-back season, his top target will almost surely follow. A year ago, Olsen had only three touchdown receptions – his fewest since snaring two in his rookie season a decade ago in 2007. And of the 25 players who garnered at least 125 targets in 2016, Olsen joined WRs Julian Edelman and Brandon Marshall (three apiece) and fellow TE Dennis Pitta (two) as the only four pass-catchers with fewer than four TD grabs. In his three seasons prior to last year, Olsen had at least six scoring catches, and it’s certainly not out of line to expect a return to that level – to go along with his customary 80 receptions and 1,000 yards. So let your league mates be the ones to drop Olsen down their TE draft boards, and then swoop in and reap the benefits.
Other strong progression candidates – Carson Wentz, Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins, Terrelle Pryor, Julius Thomas.
On the downswing
Matt Ryan – The Falcons’ QB appeared on our progression list a year ago, and did he ever deliver, posting career highs in yardage (4,944) and TD passes (38) while leading the league in TD percentage (7.1), yards per attempt (9.3) and passer rating (117.1). It was an NFL MVP season and one of the league’s historically great aerial shows to be sure, but what’s also usually certain is that the elite-season encores aren’t nearly as productive. Just reference Newton’s 2016 season or Payton Manning’s 2014 campaign from just the last three years. In addition, Shanahan – the Falcons’ ace offensive coordinator the last two seasons – departed immediately after Atlanta’s Lombardi Trophy hopes crumbled, adding yet another reason to expect a marked downturn in Ryan’s numbers, even though his offensive supporting cast returns virtually intact. Ryan was a low-end QB1 in four of his five seasons between 2010-14, and when all is said and done in 2017, that’s probably where we’ll find the ATL QB once again.
Mark Ingram – He hit career highs with 1,043 rushing yards and 10 total TDs a year ago in finishing as fantasy’s 10th-best back, but coach Sean Payton and the Saints seem to be anything but impressed, adding veteran free-agent Adrian Peterson and spending a third-round draft pick on talented Tennessee back Alvin Kamara. Pass-catching specialist Travaris Cadet also is still around, and while Ingram should still see the most touches among the contingent, this has all the makings of a classic Big Easy RBBC – Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Khiry Robinson ring any bells? – where a singular top-20 (let alone top-10) running back fantasy season has little chance of materializing.
Tevin Coleman – With the Falcons unlikely to reprise their league-leading offensive numbers of a season ago, it figures to show up most noticeably in Ryan’s stats. The numbers of a certain third-year backup running back, though, also appear headed toward a market correction. In 2016, the speedy Coleman compiled 941 total yards and 11 TDs on 118 rushes and 31 receptions, becoming only the sixth running back in the last 25 years to score 10 or more touchdowns on fewer than 150 touches. In other words, seasons like Coleman’s 2016 don’t come along very often, and with Devonta Freeman and his shiny new contract entrenched as Atlanta’s lead back, Coleman is locked into a complimentary role once again. This season, though, it’s much more reasonable to expect half as many touchdowns. Adjust your fantasy expectations accordingly.
Davante Adams – Here’s your third-year wide-receiver explosion theory personified: In his first seasons on the frozen tundra, Adams totaled 929 receiving yards and seven scoring catches. Last season, Adams jumped to 997 yards and 12 TDs on 75 receptions. Few saw that coming, and that was even with fellow Pack wideout Jordy Nelson posting a 97-1,257-14 stat line. In short, though, Adams’ 2016 campaign was a rarity which will prove near-impossible to duplicate. To wit: Adams was the fifth wide receiver in the last quarter century to have 12 or more TD catches in a season when he had 75 or fewer receptions, no more than 125 targets and less than 1,000 receiving yards. The other four wideouts to accomplish the feat – James Jones in 2012, Greg Jennings in 2007, Randy Moss in 2004 and James Jett in 1997 – averaged 6.5 touchdown grabs the following season, and that’s much more in line of what to expect from Adams in Year 4, even if he does manage to approach his 2016 totals in receptions and yardage.
Donte Moncrief, Kenny Stills – On the subject of rare wide-receiver stat seasons, we lump these next two wideouts together because they both were members of the Less-Than-50-Reception-Seven-Plus-TD-Catch club a year ago. Moncrief had seven scoring receptions among only 30 overall grabs in his third season with the Colts while Stills had nine scores among his 42 receptions in his fourth NFL season and his second with the Dolphins. Chargers rookie TE Hunter Henry (eight TDs, 36 receptions) was the other pass-catcher to accomplish the feat last season, but as you might guess, the follow-up seasons typically aren’t nearly as fruitful. From 2013-15, 11 players – including the immortal likes of Marlon Brown, Terrance Williams, Joseph Fauria, Jerricho Cotchery and Riley Cooper – had seven-plus scoring catches while logging fewer than 50 overall receptions in a season, and that group averaged all of 3.2 TD catches the following year with only one (Eddie Royal in 2014) making it to at least seven scoring grabs again. Throw in their respective quarterback situations with Moncrief uncertain to be playing with the recovering Andrew Luck for a full season and Stills adjusting to new QB Jay Cutler with Ryan Tannehill already shelved for the year, and we can almost assuredly count on marked statistical downturns for both Moncrief and Stills in 2017.
Delanie Walker – This veteran tight end, who just turned 33 on Aug. 12, hasn’t posted any anomalous stat lines of late or doesn’t belong to any rare receiving clubs. Rather, he’s been consistently productive since joining the Titans in 2013, logging at least 60 catches, 571 yards and four TDs in each of his four seasons in Tennessee while finishing as a top-10 fantasy tight end each year. So after a 65-catch, 800-yards, seven-TD 2016 in which he finished as fantasy’s fifth-ranked tight end why should we be expecting a downtick from Walker now when the Titans are trending nowhere but up in almost every other measure? It looks to be a simple matter of target and touch competition. Three years ago, Walker was the unquestioned main man in the Tennessee offense, but that’s no longer with the Titans adding first-round WR Corey Davis, third-round TE Jonnu Smith and free-agent WR Eric Decker to a pass-catching corps that also includes returning wideouts Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe in addition to Walker. And that’s not even mentioning one of the league’s most productive (third with 136.7 yards per game) and utilized (third highest rushing-play percentage at 47.2) ground game spearheaded by DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. That established, the Titans and QB Marcus Mariota suddenly aren’t just going to forget about Walker, but a third straight top-five fantasy tight-end finish looks to be too much to expect given all the other offensive options in the Music City.
Other strong regression candidates – LeGarrette Blount, Jeremy Hill, Rishard Matthews, Sterling Shepard, Cameron Brate.