TAT: This Year’s Fantasy Football Opportunists
Written by Timothy Lewis (@TrendsandTakes on IG and Twitter) — 06–05–2019
Welcome to the third year of Trends and Takes! For your edification, I rely on analytics provided by playerprofiler.com, fantasydata.com, and pro-football-reference.com. Each player header is hyperlinked to their playerprofiler web page.
We are in the late offseason and the misty image of NFL rosters is beginning to solidify. While front offices are intentionally misleading in their release of information, the truth escapes in two ways: Through free agency and draft decisions. While this list doesn’t include every player that I am excited to pull the trigger on, these are early favorites to reach yet-unrealized heights.
When it comes to fantasy football, I like my data weighted and my arithmetic simple. Juju Smith-Schuster managed a 24.5% target share while sharing the field with Antonio freakin’ Brown. Here’s the simple arithmetic: Between Antonio Brown and Jesse James’ departure, 208 targets have been vacated. While some will go to Vance McDonald, James Washington, and Donte Moncrief, Juju Smith-Schuster is the only one who has proven to be any good.
What I’m saying is, there’s a bulletproof argument for Smith-Schuster to lead the league in targets. Ben Roethlisberger forms soul bonds with his first option and the third year receiver is the newest hot rod in the Steelers’ offense.
The counterargument is that Juju will now have to face additional defensive attention. Fortunately, the USC product was a league leader in contested catch percentage and lead the entire NFL in yards after the catch. Usage in the slot also assists Juju’s matchup favorability. Overall, he has the size, versatility, volume, and quarterback to be the number one receiver in 2019.
Last year, doubt swirled about Indianapolis. Concerns of Andrew Luck’s arm tampered projections for all the Colts’ offensive assets. It would appear that this sentiment has cast a hangover on the fantasy football community, namely pertaining to Marlon Mack. The third-year back out of South Florida received a strong endorsement from his team’s front office when they neglected the running back position in the draft. His competition consists of replacement-level plodders like Jordan Wilkins and free agent acquisition Spencer Ware.
Sophomore satellite back Nyheim Hines will eat into Mack’s usage as a receiver. For me, it doesn’t matter. This offense is going to score a lot of points, and Mack averaged 18 touches per game last season. Provided that figure holds steady, Mack, at the very least, is a high-usage back in a prolific offense. Add this with his stellar athletic profile, elusiveness, and yards created numbers through 12 games last year and we have a player who will crack the top 5 at his position. One final note: Despite an injury-shortened season, Marlon Mack accumulated 10 goal-line carries, ranking 9th in the NFL for the season.
Much of what was said about Marlon Mack can be copied and pasted for Aaron Jones, an athletic back who faces little positional competition in a dominant offense. Admittedly, Jones has a couple blemishes on his profile: He’s a smaller back, in the mold of LeSean McCoy or Devonta Freeman. He’s missed significant time with injuries the past two seasons. He has never been tasked with a full workload. His goal-line usage has been underwhelming.
Doesn’t matter. If Aaron Jones is getting 15 touches per game, sign me up. He has the athleticism, proven efficiency, and receiving ability to thrive with limited usage. At UTEP, Jones accounted for an astounding 13.9% of the target share. Dion Lewis had 59 receptions last year under head coach Matt LeFleur’s direction. Aaron Jones could easily replicate that usage, only this time in an elite offense helmed by Aaron Rodgers. Jamaal or Dexter Williams may steal a couple drives each game, but the point here is owning the lead dog in the Packers’ offense. For the first time in a long time, that’s a dynamic player who doesn’t have an eating addiction.
Hunter Henry tore his ACL before the start of last season and has been cleared for all activities for quite some time. Antonio Gates is no longer a threat and looking around, there’s not much in the way of established pass-catching talent. Keenan Allen will finish around the top 10 in targets, and the duo of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler will get theirs. In 2018, Mike Williams caught a touchdown every four receptions simply because he’s tall. For him, this year’s campaign will determine if he’s a middling receiver propped by unsustainable touchdown receptions, or if the previous season was a step in the chain of progression.
With the tight end position, if you miss out on the top five or six guys, you might as well stream the position. Therefore, when there’s a guy who’s shown efficiency at the NFL level, who is walking into a role with a projectable increase in volume, one shouldn’t wait on the opportunity to press “draft”. A precocious college producer, I expect Henry to be peppered with targets from one of the game’s most accurate signal callers. Top-5 production is a safe bet, with room for Henry to make a leap into the elite echelon of the position.
James Conner proved what we’ve already known to be true: The running back position is plug-and-play for the Steelers. Their offensive line is so stout, and their offensive attack so dynamic, that stacking the box is impossible. Despite a perceptible reduction in firepower per the Antonio Brown trade, this principle benefitting the running back position will hold strong in Pittsburgh.
If anybody can do it, why stick with the plodding James Conner? Why not opt for a more athletic and versatile option? Why not bring Jaylen Samuels into the fold?
It would appear the Steelers’ brass reached a similar conclusion in their hiring of Samuels’ position coach from college, Eddie Faulkner. Having played slot receiver, tight end, and running back during his collegiate career, the NC State stand-out showed the rare adaptability to fit any need his team possessed. Now, with an NFL team experiencing the disappearance of 200+ targets, that versatility will once again be relied upon. It’s very possible Samuels benefits from the possession-style targets left behind by Le’Veon Bell and Jesse James more than other trendy favorites like Vance McDonald.
Despite only appearing in nine games, Samuels managed 26 receptions and 56 carries. A conservative estimate is those figures doubling. He’s simply a more capable player than Conner and this offense will require his explosiveness.
Either the Buccaneers or the Cardinals will lead the NFL in pass attempts this season. Kyler Murray is a rookie quarterback going to a bad team with a new head coach, a terrible offensive line, and a mix of aging and untested talent at wide receiver. While this all sounds like a tumultuous situation, I think the inherent chaos gives Murray QB1 upside.
Murray will be operating almost exclusively from the shotgun in an offense that spreads defenses with three and four-receiver sets. In theory, head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid attack will simplify reads for the young QB and alleviate pressure. A struggling offensive line may not support a strong pocket for Murray, but it will encourage him to use his legs. As a junior at Oklahoma, he totaled 1000 yards on the ground. Rushing value has been integral for successful rookies of recent memory, such as Cam Newton, RGIII, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson.
However, reducing Kyler Murray to his athleticism is punitive. His college passer rating is in the 100th percentile; his yards per attempt 99th. If he were four inches taller, we’d be talking about him as the best QB prospect ever. Whether the Cardinals are good or not doesn’t matter, their QB will score fantasy drafters a lot of points.
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