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Coby Fleener is coming off of his worst season since his rookie year of 2012. He is leaving his college teammate Andrew Luck after four seasons to play with another elite quarterback in Drew Brees. The situation is great for both the Saints and Fleener. The Saints need a TE who can replace Jimmy Graham and no offense to Benjamin Watson, but I don’t think you’re that guy. Fleener can be that TE. I’m not saying he’s going to put up the 1,200 yards and 16 TDs that Graham did in 2014. But with Sean Payton’s offense, Fleener will have his best fantasy season yet.
The Saints have been blessed with Drew Brees and Sean Payton since 2006. The Saints worst finish in net passing yards in the Brees-Payton era was 4th.
Brees is a huge reason why the Saints offense has had so much success. I would argue that he is the epitome of consistent and great quarterback production. Since moving to New Orleans Brees has averaged over 4,800 yards and almost 38 touchdowns per season. He also only missed two games during that span. From 2011-2014, Brees averaged almost 5,200 yards and over 40 touchdowns per season.
In the same four year period, Jimmy Graham averaged 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns. That accounted for 21% of Drew Brees’ passing yardage and 28% of his touchdowns. That is incredible production from the TE spot. While it’s easy to think that Jimmy Graham is much better than Coby Fleener, they are comparable players.
Graham stands at 6’7” and weighs 265 lbs. Fleener is 6’6” and weighs 251 lbs. Graham’s 40 yard dash time is 4.56 while Fleener’s is 4.51. Both players are reliable catching the ball. Over the past three seasons, each player has dropped 12 passes, accounting for 3.3% of Graham’s targets and 4.3% of Fleener’s targets. Each player is thought of as a receiving TE, as both have received criticism for their poor blocking skills.
The following is the end of the season ranking in terms of total fantasy points for the starting TE in New Orleans since 2009: 18 (2009), 23 (2010), 2 (2011), 1 (2012), 1 (2013), 3 (2014), 7 (2015). It’s also important to keep in mind that 2010 was Jimmy Graham’s rookie year, and that 2009 was the only year he played football in college.
Last year the starting TE for the Saints was an aging Benjamin Watson. Even at the age of 36, he managed to haul in 74 receptions for 825 yards and 6 TDs. That stat line was good enough for 118 fantasy points, tied for 7th best with Travis Kelce. Even without an elite tight end, the Saints are getting production from that position. Now insert Coby Fleener, who’s an upgrade from Watson. Fleener is easily going to out produce a player past his prime, after a terrible 2015 campaign he is going to be eager to produce.
Sean Payton’s TE friendly offense is going to continue with Coby Fleener. Drew Brees is going to continue to air the ball out and Fleener will reap the rewards. I predict that he will finish in the top 5 this year. There might be a little bit of growing pains with Fleener learning a new offense, but Brees and Fleener will develop great chemistry. Fleener is currently ranked as the 7th best tight end by FantasyPros, and his ADP is 79th. I’m drafting him a bit earlier than that. The risk is well worth the reward taking Fleener in the 6th round.
Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson has long been placed into the boom/bust category when it comes to fantasy fantasy football, but that is a misleading title. Some get hung up on his lack of high reception totals, others worry about his lack of double digit touchdown seasons or his failure to produce is postseason games. But despite some minor flaws in his overall production, he's actually been one of the more effective and consistent options for fantasy owners in recent memory.
Through his first eight seasons, Jackson recorded at least 900 receiving yards six times and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark four times. In just his second year (2009) he finished as a top 4 fantasy wideout. He ranked in the top 15 in 2010, the top 30 in 2011, was top 10 in 2013 and landed in the top 16 in 2014. You'd be hard pressed to find too many other receivers that good or that long of a period.
The 5'10 speed demon has made a living stretching defenses down the field, with an impressive 17.7 yards per catch for his career. This is why looking at Jackson's current 2016 ADP (average draft position) at WR34 is kind of silly when you look at how productive he's been throughout his career. He should be getting drafted higher but he simply isn't.
To put his ADP into context, Jackson is getting drafted after players like Eric Decker (WR25), Jordan Matthews (WR29) and Devante Parker (WR32). Recency bias certainly plays a role in Jackson's undervalued ADP since he's coming off his worst season as a pro after finishing with 528 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2015. Injuries played a role, as Jackson was bothered by hamstring issues that sidelined him for six games.
But you can't say any of those three receivers mentioned above have strung together the same number of successful fantasy seasons as Jackson has. The closest of the group was Eric Decker, who finished as the No. 7 overall fantasy receiver in 2012 and ranked No. 9 in 2013. Even so, Decker benefited from an exceptional situation with Peyton Manning obliterating passing records under center during those two seasons.
But situation isn't always going to play into your favor in fantasy football, so you want a guy who's effective regardless of the quarterback throwing to him and Jackson is that guy. Sure, he's had a few less-than-eye-popping seasons, but all you need to do is take a look at his overall body of work and you'll realize he's actually never really had a down year when he's on the field.
If you look back at when Jackson's situation might've impacted his numbers negatively, he still produced quality numbers. For example, he failed to generate as much success playing with Michael Vick in 2011 and 2012 after it became clear Vick's mechanics were flawed and he stood little chance of becoming a consistently effective pocket passer. Still, Jackson finished the 2011 season with 961 receiving yards and also managed 700 receiving yards in 2012 despite playing in four less games.
Jackson saw his best season in 2013 when he played the majority of snaps with Nick Foles, a quarterback who could throw the ball deep and take advantage of Jackson's speed. A year later in 2014, Jackson signed with Washington and produced another 1,000-yard season playing with a below-average tandem of post-ACL-injury Robert Griffin III and a still-in-development Kirk Cousins.
So assume Jackson enters 2016 healthy which he currently is, this is a great season to snatch him up in later rounds. He's now a part of one of the best receiving cores in the NFC as Washington now has a matchup nightmare in Jordan Reed, a jump ball receiver in Josh Doctson and two quality possession receivers in Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder. Quarterback Kirk Cousins gained a slew of confidence after leading Washington to the playoffs and winning the NFC East. Jay Gruden's offense has also lead to increased passing touchdowns for quarterbacks, just look at Andy Dalton's 2013 season when the Red Rifle threw 33 touchdowns.
Draft Jackson as a solid WR2/3 this season and don't look back.
When former San Diego Chargers running back signed with the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2015, he was actually considered the second-tier back to DeMarco Murray, a back who had also been signed away from his former team that same offseason.
But despite starting as the backup, Mathews shined brightest for Philadelphia last season as the six-year veteran rushed for 539 yards and 6 touchdowns on 106 attempts, averaging 8 fantasy points per game.
Perhaps one of the keys to Mathews flourishing was former Eagles coach Chip Kelly's system, which valued inside runners that could make quick lateral cuts in traffic. Mathews never possessed jaw-dropping agility or elusiveness, but does have good agility and his size at 6'0, 220 lbs allows him to maintain pretty good balance through contact. Overall, he's a good but not great back that can consistently churn out 4-yard gains up the middle.
When it comes to his fantasy situation in 2016, Mathews is the clear front runner in the Philadelphia backfield with the departure of Murray to the Tennessee Titans. 33-year-old Darren Sproles is expected to remain the team's change-of-pace back and rookie Wendall Smallwood has drawn some intrigue as a darkhorse that could push for touches if Sproles and Mathews come out sluggish early on.
One thing working in Mathews' favor is the Eagles situation at offensive line. Overall, the unit ranked 12th according to Pro Football Focus in 2015. While they've dropped off since leading LeSean McCoy to a rushing title in 2013, they'll still return Pro Bowler Jason Peters at left tackle and Jason Kelce at center. They added former Houston Texan Brandon Brooks at left guard, signing him to a $40 million deal this past March. Brooks brings some much needed youth in the trenches at just 26 years old and only missed four games in three seasons with Houston. Overall, this offensive line likely won't be incredible, but it won't be dismal either and should carve out some run lanes for Mathews.
Despite the offensive line being a bright spot, the Eagles could really struggle to score in 2016 due to their lackluster skill players. No. 1 wide receiver Jordan Matthews is still struggling as an outside wide receiver and may be relegated to the slot once again. Second-year wideout Nelson Agholor is coming off a disappointing rookie season where he dealt with injuries and is now battling issues off the field. So the Eagles will likely need to place Reuben Randle, Chris Givens or Josh Huff on the outside with Agholor. Teams won't be scared to single cover those wideouts which makes it easier to stop the run.
When it comes to his own talent, Mathews showed he can be a valuable feature back in the past but his most prolific seasons were sporadic and didn't instill much trust in him on a year-to-year basis. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark twice in five years with San Diego and never came close to scoring double-digit touchdowns. Never considered a goal-line running back, Mathews instead did most of his damage between the 20s which limits his upside in fantasy.
Injuries have also been a problem throughout Mathews' career. He suffered a concussion and missed three games in 2015. He missed 10 games in 2014 with an MCL injury and three games with a fractured collarbone in 2012. He played in all 16 games just once in his career, making him a liability for a full season if you end up drafting him.
Knowing Mathews struggles to stay healthy in a feature back role, there's a good chance first-year coach Doug Pederson opts to go with a committee-style attack, which could hurt Mathews chances as even a steady RB2. Right now Mathews is being drafted near players like Jay Ajayi, Matt Forte, Jonathan Stewart, and Matt Jones. He's actually a good bargain there given his situation as a possible lead back.
You know what you're getting from Mathews at this point. He's a solid 60-70 yard per game guy with the occasional 100-yard game thrown in. Injuries will likely keep him out of your lineup at times but he will be a good flex/RB2 against weaker run defenses in 2016.
Wide receivers being drafted outside the positional top 50 that are poised to crush their average draft position (ADP)
Torrey Smith | San Francisco 49ers
Current ADP: WR 51 | Round 11-12
Last season, on a terrible 49ers team, Torrey Smith struggled to find consistent fantasy production and finished just inside the top 50 WRs in standard leagues. The 2016 season brings a new coach, a new offense, and potentially a new fantasy lease on life. Chip Kelly has shown that he loves taking shots deep (which is really where Torrey Smith makes his money as a pass catcher), and the Kelly offense has produced a Top-25 wide receiver in every season Chip’s been calling plays in the NFL (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jordan Matthews). Combine that new offense with what should be a struggling defense and an overall bad team, and you have a recipe for fantasy goodness. Being taken as a WR5 in most leagues, Smith has the upside to obliterate his value at the position.
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Devin Funchess | Carolina Panthers
Current ADP: WR 61 | Round 13
As a rookie, Devin Funchess struggled to get on the field initially, and then struggled to consistently catch the ball on a team that was fairly devoid of pass catching playmakers. Couch that with the fact that it was widely reported Funchess struggled to pick up the offense, and his inconsistent (and relatively paltry) fantasy production begins to make perfect sense. Heading into his sophomore season, Funchess seems to have a strong grasp of the playbook and has reportedly been tearing up OTAs in the recent weeks. The return of Kelvin Benjamin is only going to help the second-year breakout candidate as KB’s likely going to be the focal point of defenses attempting to defend the pass. Funchess is a sneaky bet to flirt with Top-36 wide receiver value and is going undrafted in most 10 team re-draft formats.
Every year we look for a running back that can emerge from nowhere and be a Top-12 option at year’s end. One of the major issues I encounter when talking with fantasy owners is the tendency to be fairly myopic when evaluating this specific position. The idea that a player is/isn’t good seems to be the main factor when owners chase running back talent. However—especially at this position—this couldn’t be further from the truth. I generally discuss the idea of looking at each factor as a variable in an equation that we hope equals fantasy success. You can draw a fairly straight line between outstanding situations and backups that have come in and found success with a regular work load. This isn’t a fluke. This is largely because talent, while incredibly important, is only one factor that owners should look at when trying to land that ever-elusive late-round lottery ticket running back.
Running back, perhaps more than any other relevant fantasy position, is as dependent on situation as anything else. Situation often leads to opportunity, and in fantasy football, opportunity is the most valuable commodity. Fantasy owners need to ask themselves a whole host of questions before throwing those later round darts in an effort to mitigate as much risk as possible:
1) What is the depth chart ahead of a player like? Is there an abundance of talented runners ahead of a player, and what skills do those players possess? Does your player have any traits that might make him a strong bet to play on 3rd downs or in short yardage?
2) What kind of offense is the player going to be involved in? If the team is regularly in the top of rushing attempts, you can probably bet that a variance of any significant degree is unlikely.
3) What kind of tie does the running back have to the team as it is currently constructed? Did the current coaching staff hand pick this player or is he a hold-over. If you think that last piece is unimportant, simply fire up some of the Indianapolis Colts recent game tape where Trent Richardson was given every opportunity to continue running up the backs of his offensive lineman. While a tie to a coaching staff may seem trivial—it isn’t. That little bit of extra work is opportunity, and opportunity is often the difference between success and failure in the NFL.
4) What is the current state of the team’s offensive line? We saw Darren McFadden have a career year behind that mauling Dallas Cowboy line. Conversely, we saw DeMarco Murray lay an absolute egg when he headed to the Philadelphia Eagles and their far inferior offensive line. As a Seahawks fan I remember vividly what happened after Shaun Alexander received his massive pay day, and his offensive line pieces subsequently began being sniped by other teams. He was truly awful. If you buy into this offensive line theory, then you likely have Ezekiel Elliot as a top overall player in re-draft leagues–as I do. Look around the league at the terrible offensive line units and try to find three running backs that are appealing when running behind them. It’s not easy to do.
5) Who is the quarterback? While the position that effectively can take opportunity away from a running back may seem like a weird one to evaluate when looking for the lottery running back, it’s imperative for several reasons—not the least of which is that if the quarterback stinks the defense doesn’t really have to account for them. A healthy dose of stacked boxes is almost impossible for a running back to overcome (outside of the most elite runners a la Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles types). You want the quarterback to be a competent player that forces defenses to respect him and the threat of a passing game.
6) Can he catch? Will he be given the opportunity to catch? A running back who leaves the field when a team “may” be passing sees a massive drop in value. As such, running backs with decent hands become much more valuable in both PPR and standard leagues. Receptions are simply another form of opportunity, and if your running back is strong running routes out of the backfield, it’s more likely than not that he will be matched up with an athletically inferior linebacker. The result is often a chunk play that often rewards owners with the same amount of points that they would have gotten with multiple rushes on a single play.
7) What’s he cost? It’s easy to get caught up in the “real” NFL portion when we are putting together our lists. Skills, situation, and surroundings are imperative. That said, none of these matter if the players price, or Average Draft Position (ADP) is far too rich. Every player has a line that they reach where they are both a value and a risk. Investing significant draft capital in players that at the very best may be a recipe for disaster. Don’t let your love of a significant player cause you to overpay. I try and enter every draft with tiers or a tailored pricing guide so that I have a ceiling on values for every player I may consider drafting. Overpaying for a running back is the quickest way to create deficiencies at other positions. And if last season taught us anything, it’s that the beating the running backs take lead to injuries, and others will step up and fill the position.
These are a few of the factors I consider when looking at taking running backs that aren’t “sure things” (as much any runner can be a sure thing). Below are a few names of running backs I am monitoring this offseason, along with a short description about why.
C.J. Prosise | Seattle Seahawks
Prosise was a 3rd round pick for the Seahawks in this year’s draft, and was among three running backs they selected during the 2016 NFL draft. If a team tells you what they really think with their draft strategy, then fantasy owners couldn’t have received a clearer message from the team about Thomas Rawls and his recovery. While Rawls was outstanding in limited work last year, it was just that, limited work. Add that to his ankle injury, of which the severity has been very poorly reported, and you have a player just learning the position that has the build of an every down back in Prosise. At worst he’s going to dominate the pass catching role in Seattle’s backfield. At his ceiling, he will eventually prove he is the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch and go on to lead one of the most productive backfields in the league in touches.
Wendell Smallwood | Philadelphia Eagles
A slight runner out of West Virginia, Smallwood landed in a great situation. The Eagles took him in the first draft of the new coaching regime and the team looks set up to be throw a ton this season. If you squint your eyes when looking at Smallwood, you can see a situation where he leads this team in carries. Ryan Mathews has struggled to stay healthy, and the idea that Philadelphia is going to willingly give Mathews 250+ touches would seem like a recipe for collar-bone disaster. Smallwood doesn’t have a history of flashy or jaw-dropping plays, but he is an incredibly productive running back. If he can add a little weight in the offseason it wouldn’t be a surprise to seem him start the year as a legit change of pace runner in that offense. And should Mathews suffer an injury, it’s absolutely possible that Smallwood takes that job and runs with it.
Keith Marshall | Washington
It wasn’t that long ago that Marshall was a higher rated prospect than Todd Gurley. A knee injury and a mediocre college season later, Marshall found himself a 7th round pick of Washington in the 2016 draft. The two things that Marshall has going for him are the fact that he is still an incredibly electric athlete (his combine metrics were among the best in the class), and the fact that Washington has hitched it’s wagon to a second-year player in Matt Jones that had some real issues with ball security and overall effectiveness last season. Bottom line, Jones was not a very good player for large stretches last season. When he did seem to make a “splash play,” he often punctuated it by coughing up the football. While a late round or UDFA player leading a team in carries seems like a stretch to some, we need only look at the recent NFL data to see it happens much more often than we realize. In fact, his team did it only 3 seasons ago with the recently jettisoned Alfred Morris. Don’t forget that in his freshman season, Marshall had 850 yards and 9 TDs from scrimmage on only 128 total touches. The talent is absolutely there.
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Every year we see someone’s season cut short by injury. There were several in 2015, but the players below have a chance to come back and have a real impact in their post-injury season.
Jordy Nelson | WR | Green Bay Packers
Jordy Nelson has been one the best wide receivers in fantasy football for the last half decade. He’s had almost a full year to recover from a clean ACL tear and finds himself returning to a Green Bay Packers team that was a woeful underperformer in 2015. Aaron Rodgers may be the best quarterback in the NFL right now and he loves peppering Nelson with targets when the two are on the field. Combine that with a rejuvenated running game, and Nelson is set for a monster season that paints a Top-10 WR finish as the floor for me.
Jamaal Charles | RB | Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles suffered his second ACL tear last season. Kansas City went on to utilize a RB rotation that led them to a playoff win (it was actually a drubbing). Those two tidbits are the only ammunition that Charles detractors have when trying to dump on the superstar. The good news for fantasy owners is that Charles has been incredibly productive with 16ish touches in his career and his career yards per carry is among the best in NFL history. I expect Andy Reid to continue to ride Charles as a feature back, and I struggle to find six running backs currently in the NFL that I have more faith in when it comes to consistent fantasy production. Besides, the NFL as a whole has moved more towards the dreaded running back by committee-RBBC.
Kevin White | WR | Chicago Bears
Last year, for me, the question was who would be the third best rookie wide receiver of the 2015 draft class, because the spot behind Amari Cooper was firmly occupied by athletic juggernaut Kevin White. After missing the entire 2015 campaign with a foot fracture, a fully healthy White is returning to a lineup that sees him partnered with superstar wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and the perpetually underrated Jay Cutler. Without a bell cow running back (the jury is still very much out on Jeremy Langford as Matt Forte is now a New York Jet) and positioned opposite a middling defense, White is poised to see a healthy amount of targets in what will really be his first NFL season. Don’t forget, Chicago lost one of its most effective pass catching options as they sent Zach Miller to injured reserve in mid-June.