Fantasy players on the upswing/downswing

Fantasy players on the upswing/downswing

Draft Strategy

Fantasy players on the upswing/downswing

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Near the top of the ancient clay tablet of fantasy football commandments (circa late 1990s), we come across:

Do not pay full price for the prior season’s statistics.

It’s recency bias and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome personified and rolled into one, and yet we see it season after season. You, in fact, were a first-hand witness to this very phenomenon last night in your long-time home league draft room where Patrick Mahomes went fifth overall.

That’s how alluring and blinding an MVP sophomore season for the ages (5,097 yards, 52 total touchdowns) can be.

But, first, we must inject a qualifier here:

Do not pay full price for the prior season’s statistics … unless you’re buying low.

So, yes, use your fellow fantasy general managers’ recency bias to your advantage and swoop up the value while gladly paying the late-round price this summer for a Jimmy Garoppolo, Emmanuel Sanders or Jack Doyle, banking on that something-for-nothing, bounce-back, fantasy starter-worthy season.

After all, it works both ways in the NFL and fantasy football, which aren’t immune to the laws of sports physics. The stocks and fortunes of individual players and teams typically are either going up or down – and almost no one is staying the exact 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 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 stroll on past the majority of 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 75 targets but double-digit touchdown catches a season ago? An obvious candidate to take a fantasy tumble.

A second-year, highly-drafted running back who saw his veteran timeshare mate from the previous season leave in free agency this past March? 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 10 prime candidates – five players seemingly headed up and another five seemingly headed in the opposite direction – and a handful of others whose fantasy numbers should take measurable and meaningful turns in 2019.

So get your portfolios ready. Let’s buy (and bypass) some fantasy player stock …

Headed up

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Rodgers

Sure Rodgers assumed his customary place among the top-10 fantasy quarterbacks last season, but it was closer to the bottom of the QB1 tier (ninth) than the top and we mainly can blame his unusually low touchdown pass total (25), which, in fact, was a career full-season low-water mark.

Rodgers threw 597 passes – the second-highest single-season total of his career – but only 4.2 percent of those attempts went for touchdowns. That percentage was easily the lowest mark since he became a starter in 2008 and is a full two percentage points lower than his career mark of 6.2.

So what’s changing for the now 35-year-old Rodgers in 2019?

Plenty.

Gone is head coach Mike McCarthy – the only head coach Rodgers has known since becoming a starter – and the disconnect the two parties had developed late in McCarthy’s tenure. In his stead, enter new head coach Matt LaFleur and his new-age offense.

Rodgers still has stud No. 1 receiver Davante Adams (double-digit TD catches in three straight seasons) to throw to along with veteran tight end Jimmy Graham.

The rest of the Pack’s wide receiver corps is rather young but is now another season further along, meaning that significant leaps/breakout seasons from the likes of a Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Jake Kumerow or Geronimo Allison wouldn’t come as any big shocker.

The tight end position also is getting a shot of youth and talent in third-round pick Jace Sternberger while emerging running back Aaron Jones is a capable target out of the backfield.

It has bounce-back season written all over it for football’s A-Rod. In all, count on Rodgers’ TD percentage to regressing (upward) to the mean – or beyond – and the QB himself returning to the fantasy elite at the position.

Jameis Winston

To refresh a few memories, no passing offense threw for more yards (320.3 per game) last season and only two had more TD passes than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 36. Also, no team threw more interceptions than the Bucs’ 26, but only one team (Mahomes and the Chiefs) averaged more quarterback fantasy points per game.

Of course, Winston started only nine of those contests and played in two others, thanks to a three-game suspension to start the season and a benching or two afterward. He finished as the 21st-ranked fantasy QB overall in terms of total points (259.7) but tied for seventh with his 24-point per game average.

Fast forward to the current preseason and we’ve found that we’ve had a number of comings and goings, including a change of head coaches (Bruce Arians for Dirk Koetter), a switch of offensive coordinators (Byron Leftwich for Todd Monken) and some ins (TE O.J. Howard back from injury) and outs (WRs DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries leaving in free agency) among the pass-catching corps.

Veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 2,366 yards and 17 TDs while starting seven games, has also departed, leaving the QB duties to Winston, the former No. 1-overall pick in a prove-it contract year.

Under Arians and Leftwich, the Bucs still will be pass heavy, and one of the league’s worst defenses (second-most points and sixth-most yards surrendered in 2018) figures to keep it that way.

It won’t always be pretty with Winston. He had 17 turnovers last season, including 14 picks, and that’s simply part of the package deal.

But the scheme, situation and supporting cast (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Howard) figure to add up to a fantasy QB finish comfortably inside the top 10.

Dalvin Cook

We’re entering Year 3 with Cook, and after two up-and-down, injury-hampered seasons, he sees primed to deliver on his RB1 potential.

Cook came back from his rookie-year ACL tear to total 920 total yards and four TDs in 11 games, and 596 yards and all four scores came during the season-ending six-week stretch in which he averaged 13.9 fantasy points per outing.

Those six contests more or less coincided with the Vikings’ switch to a more run-oriented approach under current offensive coordinator Kevin Stafanski, and Cook averaged a healthy 17 touches per game during that span.

Gone is Latavius Murray, who led the Vikings with 140 rushing attempts last season, and enter third-round pick Alexander Mattison, but Minnesota will be counting on – and leaning on – a healthy Cook from the outset. And if he can stay healthy, his breakout, bellcow promise should finally be realized.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Odell Beckham Jr.

Veteran wide receivers switching teams at mid-career doesn’t always pan out for either side, but this match has the looks to be a perfect pairing.

OBJ is going from the fading Eli Manning to the up-and-coming Baker Mayfield and an offense brimming with high-powered potential.

That should energize Beckham, a top-five fantasy wideout his first three pro seasons, who is in need of a reboot after playing only 16 combined games over the last two seasons. Those 16 games still yielded 102 receptions, 1,354 yards and nine TDs, so it’s not like OBJ has lot much – if anything at all.

Rather, he’s just entering his prime at age 26 and should re-emerge as a dominant fantasy force. And with better health fortune, a finish as the No. 1 overall fantasy wideout certainly isn’t out of the question.

Evan Engram

Beckham’s escape from New York leaves behind a gaping void in the Giants’ passing attack.

Compounding matters is that injuries (Sterling Shepard, Corey Coleman) and suspension (Golden Tate) have already thinned the N.Y. corps this preseason, leaving RB Saquon Barkley and Engram as easily the two most reliable early-season targets.

In his sophomore campaign of 2018, Engram failed to follow up on his top-10 fantasy tight end rookie season as nagging injuries and ineffectiveness resulted in a 45-577-3 final receiving stat line on 64 targets over 11 games.

However, Engram’s final four games last season yielded 22 catches on 33 targets for 320 yards and a TD. They also happened to be the four games Beckham missed in 2018 – portending, perhaps, a strong rebound season ahead for Engram.

Other prime progression candidates

Baker Mayfield – Additional forward progress would naturally be expected of any second-year starting QB, but the addition of a top-shelf weapon like Beckham to an otherwise strong supporting offensive skill cast, should help accelerate Mayfield well up into QB1 territory.

Derek Carr – Struggles have abounded since his standout 2016 season when he finished as the ninth-ranked QB in fantasy, but an weapons upgrade (Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams) and already having a year of familiarity in Jon Gruden’s offense has a strong chance of driving Carr back into low-end QB1 range.

Kerryon Johnson – His promising rookie season was cut six games short by injury, but all systems appear to be go in what figures to be one of the league’s most ground-centric attacks.

Royce Freeman – As forecast, a Broncos rookie running back delivered a RB2 season in 2018 – only it was the undrafted Phillip Lindsay, who’s back from a wrist injury as Denver’s most enticing fantasy prospect. The overshadowed Freeman also fought through a nagging ankle issue last season, but don’t be surprised in Year 2 if he commands 40-plus percent of the running back touches on a team which should feature one of the league’s 10 best ground attacks.

Chris Godwin – As aforementioned, the wide-receiver room is now emptier in Tampa, opening the door even wider for more improvement from Godwin who jumped from a rookie receiving stat line of 55-34-525-1 to 95-59-842-7 last season.

Corey Davis – He added 31 catches, 516 yards and four TDs from his rookie totals to finish with a 112-65-891-4 receiving line last year, and more improvement looks to be in store with, if not a healthier Marcus Mariota, a better backup QB in Ryan Tannehill.

Vance McDonald – Brown and his team-most 168 targets, 104 receptions and 1,297 yards are gone from the Steel City, leaving ample room for this tight end to improve on the career-best receiving numbers (72-50-610-4) he posted a season ago.

Headed down

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson

Touchdown-pass percentage regression has been a hot fantasy topic this summer, and for good reason: It’s for real.

Both Mahomes (8.6 TD percentage) and Wilson (8.2) were over 8 percent last season, making them only the seventh and eighth qualified quarterbacks to top that mark in the last 20 seasons. From 2008-17, there were only 13 instances in which a QB finished a season with a scoring-pass percentage of even 7 percent or above and each of them saw their TD-pass percentages fall by at least 0.6 percent the following season.

In terms of touchdown pass totals, the average following-season decline for that baker’s dozen was 12.2 scoring passes. Only one (Tom Brady in 2011) of the 13 threw more TD passes (39, up from 36) than he did in his 7 percent-plus season but his scoring-pass percentage did decline from 7.3 to 6.4.

And, likewise, only one of the 13 (Drew Brees in 2012) improved his fantasy QB rank the following season with the  average decline being nine spots in the rankings after throwing out the seasons where injuries resulted in more precipitous falls.

Sure, Mahomes could’ve scored 100 fewer fantasy points last season and still finished as the No. 6 fantasy QB while Wilson could easily make up for his expected TD percentage dip by simply throwing more passes than he did in 2018 when he finished 20th with 427 attempts (his lowest total since 2013).

But the point is that Mahomes is more than likely will fall back to the rest of the elite QB pack, making it an unwise value decision to draft him a full round or two ahead of the other top quarterbacks. Meanwhile Wilson, now sans longtime No. 1 wideout Doug Baldwin, is very unlikely to finish as a QB1 again unless Seattle eases up on its run-heavy approach and opens up the offense.

Todd Gurley

Fantasy’s top overall running back in 2018 was anything during the stretch run and postseason as Gurley sat out two full games (Weeks 16 and 17) and averaged only 14 touches and 9.3 fantasy points in his last five contests overall (including the three postseason tilts) after averaging 23.5 touches and 23.2 fantasy points in his first 12 games.

And whether it was a knee sprain, an arthritic knee or some other undisclosed health issue, something was clearly amiss with Gurley in the part of the season when it mattered most. Sean McVay and the Rams continue to insist all is well, but their offseason actions say otherwise as they matched a competing offer to retain backup RB Malcolm Brown and also traded up in the third round of the draft to make Memphis’ Darrell Henderson the third running back off the board.

Still only 25, Gurley figures to be the lead back in one of the league’s top offenses, but count on his touches going down – he’s averaged 307.2 (21.2 per game) over his first four regular seasons, including 343 and 315, respectively, in his two most recent campaigns – as the Rams use Brown and Henderson to mitigate the wear and tear on their leading man.

The talent is still largely there for Gurley, but the other main component of the fantasy equation (opportunity) is almost certain to see a marked decrease, meaning we can no longer enter a season with Gurley locked in as a fantasy RB1.

Eric Ebron

Anyone seeing the headline of this article had to know they were going to find the Colts’ tight end featured prominently in the regression section.

After four seasons with the Lions, Ebron entered his first season in Indy with 12 career touchdowns. He had 14 in 2018 (on all of 69 touches), including one rushing, to easily pace all tight ends and finish fourth at the position in fantasy.

However, the Colts’ No. 1 tight end, Jack Doyle, was limited to six games and 26 receptions due to injury and in the games he did play, he outsnapped Ebron by a decisive 331-165 margin and drew 33 targets to Ebron’s 22. Indy has since added wide receivers Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell this offseason, and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Funchess, in particular, adds another tight end-type target to the mix for (hopefully, ideally) QB Andrew Luck.

Also, don’t forget about second-year tight end Mo Alie-Cox, the converted college hoops player whom Indy reportedly really likes after a seven-catch, 133-yard, two-TD debut a year ago.

Add it all up, and there’s nowhere to go but down for Ebron’s touchdown total, which accounted for a whopping and unsustainable 53.1 percent of his fantasy points in 2018.

Bears defense

Not to pick on the Chicago Bears’ fine defense, but bear with me (pun intended) as I lay out my annual case against drafting fantasy defenses anywhere other than the next-to-last round.

Now, the Monsters of the Midway were indeed defensive monsters a season ago, leading the league with 27 interceptions, bagging 50 sacks (seventh), recovering nine fumbles (16th) and scoring six return TDs (first) to pace all fantasy defenses/special teams units with 160 points.

Naturally, fantasy general managers are banking on a repeat performance from the Bears, currently selecting the Chicago stop unit in the eighth round, on average, in 12-team drafts. That’s more than a full round higher than the next highest defense, the Rams.

But how probable is that repeat performance for Chicago?

Recent history says not likely.

Of the last 10 No. 1 overall fantasy defenses, only one – the 2011-12 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 36.4 fantasy points.

Moreover, what the Bears accomplished last season with their 27 interceptions and 50 sacks was a rarity. Chicago was the first defensive unit since the 2006 Ravens to finish a season with at least 25 picks and 50 sacks and was only the 12th defense total to pull off that double-double since 1990.

So if the Bears aren’t as likely to be as ferocious in 2019 – especially with renowned defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now gone – and are likely to fall back to the fantasy defense pack, put that eighth-round pick to better use by taking your starting QB or adding that potential breakout running back or wide receiver and let a rival league owner overpay for last season’s No. 1 D.

Other strong regression candidates

Ben Roethlisberger – Finished as fantasy’s No. 2 QB last season while leading the league in attempts, completions and yards, but a repeat is highly unlikely sans his longtime top target Brown for the first time in a decade.

Adrian Peterson – Amazed and surprised in 2018 with a 1,042-yard comeback season at age 33, but his touches and snaps seem destined to fall with the return from injury of second-year back Derrius Guice, who’s a dozen years younger.

Jordan Howard – Has had at least 270 touches, 1,080 total yards and nine TDs in each of the last two seasons, but the first two numbers are primed to tumble as he joins a more crowded Philly backfield which added promising rookie RB Miles Sanders in the second round of the draft.

James White – Fantasy’s surprise No. 11 back last season in standard scoring, White finished third among RBs with 87 catches and doubled his previous career season high with 12 total TDs. He should still be heavily involved in the passing game, but look for his touchdown total to take a big hit given all the other mouths to feed (Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and third-round pick Damien Harris) in the New England backfield.

Tyler Lockett – With Baldwin now out of the picture, he figures to see more targets than the 70 he had last season, but his other efficiency numbers (81.4 percent catch rate, league-best 13.8 yards per target and averaging a TD every seven targets and 5.7 receptions) are simply unsustainable.

Mike Williams – Speaking of unsustainable numbers, Williams averaged a scoring reception every 6.6 targets and 4.3 catches in 2018, and while his targets should see a bump, his TDs figure to take a tumble with tight end/ red-zone threat Hunter Henry back healthy.

Zach Ertz – 2018 was a career season where everything fell into place for Ertz, who set league single-season tight end records for targets (156) and receptions (116) while matching his career high with eight scoring grabs. Philly, though, has since added more weapons (DeSean Jackson, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and RB Miles Sanders) while fellow TE Dallas Goedert, an emerging second-year talent, deserves to draw more targets than the 44 he saw as a rookie.

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