Players on the upswing/downswing

Players on the upswing/downswing

Draft Strategy

Players on the upswing/downswing

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Sizing up player fortunes in fantasy football each offseason without first studying the indicators is analogous to blindly stepping onto an elevator from the middle floor of an 81-story building: Are we headed up or down?

The NFL isn’t immune to the laws of sports physics. Players and teams are either rising toward the penthouse or slipping down closer to the less-than-desirable alternative.

Almost no one is staying on Floor 41.

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 indicators 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 going-up/progression list, but we’re going to bypass that low-hanging fruit and focus on last season’s realistically unsustainable stats and the offseason’s most notable transactions 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 leaving a 50-50 committee backfield to become the man for a run-oriented coach on a new team? 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 2018.

So let’s step aboard that elevator …

Headed up

Drew Brees – Following an amazing run of 12 straight top-10 fantasy QB seasons, Brees slipped to 11th in 2017 while hitting New Orleans career lows (since 2006) in passing attempts (536), yards (4,334) and touchdown tosses (23) while matching his Saints low with a 4.3 TD percentage. It will be immediately pointed out by some that Brees will turn 40 on Jan. 15 and that the inevitable drop-off has come, but we’re not so sure. Consider: Brees established a new single-season NFL completion-percentage standard (72.0) while leading the league in yards per attempt at 8.1 – the third-highest mark of his career. So while the quality of Brees’ aerial efficiency was clearly still there, it was much more an issue of simple quantity as the Saints ran the ball on 43.6 percent of their offensive plays – the 13th highest mark in the league. It also was the first time the franchise ran the ball on more than 37.7 percent of its offensive plays – or ranked higher than 26th in the league in that category – since the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season of 2009 when they ranked ninth with 44.8 rushing-play percentage. So while Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara combined for 1,852 yards and 20 TDs on 350 rushes while both finishing as top-five fantasy backs, Brees’ fantasy owners saw their man slide to the brink of QB1 territory. Kamara and Ingram (following a four-game PED suspension) will both again tote the rock plenty this season, but look for Brees’ numbers to progress back closer to his New Orleans single-season averages of  624 attempts, 4,841 yards and 34 TDs.

Matt Ryan & Julio Jones – Matty Ice is making his third consecutive appearance in this space, and, not to boast, but we correctly foresaw his 2016 statistical surge and ensuing 2017 downturn – although maybe not quite to the actual heights and depths. Now, though, the pendulum should be swinging back in the positive direction for the 33-year-old QB. Ryan’s touchdown-pass percentage dipped from a league-high 7.1 percent in his MVP season of 2016 to 3.8 last year, and his 20 TD tosses in 2017 were his fewest since his rookie season of 2008. Look for those numbers to progress back toward his career season averages of 4.6 and 26, respectively. Overall, the Falcons were among the league leaders in yards per game (eighth with 364.8) and yards per play (fifth with 5.93), but Atlanta’s red-zone TD percentage slipped from 64.6 in 2016 to 49.2 last season as the team scored a whopping 187 fewer points overall. And on the subject of red zones, that was most definitely a sore spot last season for Jones’ fantasy owners who saw the receiver catch only five of his 19 targets for 33 yards and one TD inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. In all, Jones finished with only three scoring grabs – his fewest by three in the six near-full seasons of his career – and posted just five double-digit fantasy-point games in standard-scoring formats despite finishing second in the league with 1,444 receiving yards. It’s now the second season under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian in the ATL, and while it’s unrealistic to predict a boom approaching the one we saw in Year 2 under second-year OC Kyle Shanahan in 2016, the majority of signs are pointing upward for the Falcons – and, correspondingly, Ryan and Jones.

Jerick McKinnon – After hitting career highs with 1,303 yards and five TDs while teaming nicely with Latavius Murray to replace injured rookie Dalvin Cook in Minnesota a season ago, McKinnon surprised more than a few by signing the fifth-largest running back contract (four years, $30 million) in the league to serve as the lead back in Shanahan’s shiny new offense in San Francisco. Sure, there is some justifiable skepticism about a 5-foot-9, 205-pound back who averaged only 154 touches per season and 10.6 per game suddenly taking on a RB1-esque workload, but it’s awfully tough to tarnish the track record of successful RBs in Shanahan’s offenses – from Steve Slaton’s surprising rookie season in Houston to Alfred Morris’ successful run in Washington to the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman dynamic duo in Atlanta. Second-year back Matt Breida will get his share of touches, and the newly signed Morris is there as an insurance policy, but McKinnon is primed to shatter his career highs across the board as a projected high-end RB2 by the Bay.

Joe Mixon – A year ago at this time, this 2017 second-round draft pick was being hyped as an undervalued RB2 candidate, but wound up a disappointing 32nd among fantasy backs (115 points), topping 50 rushing yards in only four of 14 games, catching 30 passes for 287 yards and totaling four TDs. Mixon totaled 208 touches – four more than the rest of Cincy’s backs combined – and that total should see a bump with Hill, his chief competition for early-down carries, now in New England. The Bengals also have beefed their offensive line – a glaring trouble spot a season ago – and that’s another reason why Mixon’s touchdown total should see a bump after finishing as one of the five backs (among the 27 overall) with 200-plus touches and fewer than five total TDs.

T.Y. Hilton – The Indy wideout played in all 16 games in 2017 for the fifth straight season, but the problem was his best friend in the aerial game, QB Andrew Luck, played nary a down last year. That resulted in five-year lows in targets (109), receptions (57) and receiving yards (966) for Hilton. He also scored a career-worst four TDs and 120.6 fantasy points to place 24th among all wide receivers. Hilton posted triple-digit receiving-yard totals in only a quarter of his 16 games, and a full 505 of his 966 receiving yards (52.3 percent) came in just three contests. Provided his surgically-repaired right throwing shoulder holds up, Luck will be back in the pocket this fall, and that is nothing but great news for Hilton, who is the unquestioned top target in the Colts’ revamped passing game. Even while facing stiffer competition for targets, Hilton finished as a top-10 fantasy wideout in two of his previous three seasons catching passes from Luck, and he should easily approach that territory again in 2018 as long as the QB can play in at least 12 games.

Trey Burton – This University of Florida product entered the league a year after fellow Philly tight end Zach Ertz did in 2013 and has played deep in the recesses of the latter’s shadow, catching 63 passes for 629 yards and six TDs in his four seasons with the Eagles. However, in the four games Ertz has missed due to injury over the past two seasons, Burton has filled in quite productively, catching 14 of 23 targets for 180 yards and four TDs in that quartet of contests. The Bears certainly were impressed, handing Burton a four-year, $32 million contract, which includes a cool $18 million in guaranteed dollars – tops among all current tight ends. Those big bucks also signify that Burton is finally an unquestioned starting tight end, and with new Chicago head coach Matt Nagy having coordinated a K.C. offense last season which saw Travis Kelce pace all tight ends in targets (122) and receptions (83), don’t be surprised in the least if Burton joins his former teammate Ertz and Kelce in the TE1 club this season.

Other prime progression candidates – Derek Carr, Jay Ajayi, Isaiah Crowell, Derrick Henry, Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, George Kittle

Headed down

Russell Wilson – With the Seahawks’ defense and running game continuing to decline, more pressure has been heaped on Wilson, and last year he most definitely delivered, throwing a league- and career-high 34 TD passes while adding three more on the ground to account for an absurd 37 of the team’s 38 offensive touchdowns overall. It all added up to a league-leading 412 fantasy points for Wilson – a full 48 more than runner-up Cam Newton. The thing, though, with these outlier, anomaly statistical seasons is that’s exactly what they usually turn out to be. So while Wilson’s pass attempts could indeed increase for sixth straight season as the Seattle defense continues its fade pattern, look for the run game to account for more of its fair share of the offense’s yards and TDs. It might happen more or less by default as Wilson has lost his second- and third-most targeted pass-catchers from last season – TE Jimmy Graham and WR Paul Richardson – a duo which combined for 101 receptions, 1,223 yards and 16 TDs. Now while Wilson is almost surely headed to a seventh straight top-12 fantasy finish, look for him to finish much closer to the rear of the QB1 ranks than the front.

LeSean McCoy – This Buffalo standout has finished as a top-12 fantasy back in six out of the last eight seasons and has totaled at least 1,500 total yards and eight TDs in each of his last two campaigns. But the overall needle, nonetheless is pointed down for Shady. He hit the not-so-magical 30-year-old milestone for running backs in July and is entering his first season in western New York without Tyrod Taylor as his primary quarterback, meaning all the RB perks of playing alongside an experienced dual-threat QB will have packed up and moved to Cleveland. In addition, the Bills’ once-stout offensive line has taken some hits – three to be exact – with the exodus of left tackle Cordy Glenn, Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito and stalwart center Eric Wood. And, finally, there are the ugly off-field accusations leveled this summer at McCoy by his ex-girlfriend, which could eventually involve the league and its unpredictable hand of justice. That risk has to be factored into McCoy’s outlook. In the meantime, he is entering the season as the Bills’ unquestioned top offensive weapon, but a slide out of RB1 range this season wouldn’t exactly be a shocker.

Dion Lewis – The soon-to-be 28-year-old Lewis seemingly is at the height of his powers, coming off a career year in which he bettered or nearly eclipsed the combined totals from his four previous seasons – including rushing attempts (180 in 2017), rushing yards (896), touches (212), total yards (1,110) and TDs (nine). The Titans and new coach Mike Vrabel believe so, signing the 5-8, 195-pound back to shiny new deal to pair with holdover Derrick Henry. But while Lewis easily paced the Patriots last season in rushes, touches and TDs, that doesn’t figure to be the case in the Music City where the 6-3, 245-pound Henry appears certain to handle the bulk of the early-down and goal-line work. And then there’s the all-important matter of health. Lewis played a full 16 games (19, including the postseason) for the first time since entering the league in 2011, but prior to last year, injuries had limited Lewis to 38 career games over six years – including full-season absences in 2013 and 2014. Can he show 2017 wasn’t simply an outlier by playing close to a full season again this year? Even if so, Lewis figures to have a hard time replicating his 2017 numbers and his No. 13 fantasy-RB finish.

Marvin Jones – This Motor City wideout is coming off a career year in 2017 as he reeled in 61 of 107 targets for 1,101 yards and nine TDs. Jones’ 1,101 yards were easily a career high, and 18-yards-per-catch average paced the league as he finished as fantasy’s fifth-ranked receiver (11th overall in PPR formats). Meanwhile, fellow starting wideout Golden Tate led the Lions in targets (120) and receptions (92 – 31 more than Jones), but finished with 98 fewer yards and four fewer TD grabs. Those TD totals alone figure to even out more this season, and then there’s up-and-coming second-year WR Kenny Golladay who easily should command more than 48 targets, 28 catches and three TDs he had while being limited to 11 games by health issues last season as a rookie. Moving the focus back even further, QB Matthew Stafford’s pass attempts have declined almost steadily from his league-leading 727 in 2012 to 565 last season, and it would not be surprising to see Detroit rely even more in 2018 on an improved ground game which now features second-round pick Kerryon Johnson and free-agent signee LeGarrette Blount. All told, it almost certainly spells a decline in overall fantasy production for Jones.

Brandin Cooks – Following a rookie season that was cut short by injury, Cooks has been a top-12 fantasy wideout in each of the last three campaigns. Jumping from New Orleans to New England a year ago certainly didn’t hurt his stock or stats as he snared 65 of 114 targets for 1,082 yards and seven TDs to tie the former Saints teammate Michael Thomas for the eighth spot among fantasy WRs. Now, another offseason has brought another trade – this time sending Cooks to L.A. where the Rams hope to plug him in in place of Sammy Watkins as the team’s deep threat. However, going west doesn’t necessarily mean more opportunity for Cooks with WRs Cooper Kupp (94 targets last year as a rookie), and Robert Woods (85), RB Todd Gurley (87) and emerging tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett (77 combined) all vying for Jared Goff’s attention. Watkins finished fourth among that group with 70 targets in 15 games in 2017, and while Cooks should better that total, it should still fall well short of the 120 targets he averaged over the previous three seasons. That means the other figures in Cooks’ receiving stat line likely will dip accordingly, quite possibly down into low-end WR2 range.

Evan Engram – The 2017 first-round pick out of Mississippi caught 64 passes for 722 yards and six TDs to go down as the first rookie tight end to finish his first year in the top five at his position since some guy named Gronkowski in 2010. Engram’s 115 targets ranked only behind Kelce’s 122 among tight ends and were 31 more than the next-closest Giant (WR Sterling Shepard). But that was almost by default in a passing game which saw the saw the top three wideouts (Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Shepard) miss a combined 29 games due to injuries. Marshall is now gone, but OBJ and Shepard are starting with clean bills of health, and the G-Men also spent the second-overall pick in the draft on Saquon Barkley, who led all NCAA backs in receiving yards (632) last season at Penn State. In short, it means Engram suddenly has dropped a notch or three down the Giants’ offensive pecking order, and while he could very well still flirt with TE1 numbers in 2018, another top-five fantasy finish at the position would be even more of a surprise than it was a season ago.

Jaguars defense – The J’ville ‘D’ was the fantasy special teams/defense to own last season, leading the league with 55 sacks, 14 fumble recoveries and, most notably, eight return TDs (interceptions, fumbles and kickoff and punt returns). It added up to 173 fantasy points – 22 more than the runner-up Ravens – and the highest single-season point total for a fantasy ‘D’ in four years. Fantasy general managers are banking on a repeat performance, currently drafting the Jags’ defense in the ninth round, on average, in 10-team drafts as the first stop unit off the board. But how probable is that repeat performance? Recent history says not likely. Of the last 10 No. 1 overall fantasy defenses, only one – the 2012 Bears – finished in the top spot in consecutive seasons, and, overall, the reigning No. 1s finished in ninth place, on average, the following season with an average decrease of 36.2 fantasy points. And of the 11 teams who have totaled at least eight return scores in a season over the last decade, they averaged 4.5 return TDs the following season and only one – those 2012 Bears again – had as many as eight in the ensuing campaign. The lesson? Use that ninth-round pick on a quarterback or running back or wide receiver depth and wait to select your defense in final few rounds.

Other strong regression candidates – Deshaun Watson, Alex Smith, Mark Ingram, Chris Thompson, Devin Funchess, Jarvis Landry, Jimmy Graham

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