Every NFL team has a critical question for the upcoming fantasy football season. Answer it correctly with your player ownership and offseason moves and be rewarded. On the flip side, choose poorly and another owner reaps the rewards. Here are the critical questions for each NFC team in 2017:
Watching Cardinals games last year there was little going on outside of these two offensive centerpieces. John Brown is the logical next weapon up, but his promising 2015 turned into a lost 2016 battling sickle cell anemia. Recent reports are Brown is still limited by the complications. With Michael Floyd gone, Jermaine Gresham a lackluster fantasy option by this late stage of his career, J.J. Nelson is a satellite ancillary weapon, and Chad Williams a mid-round rookie receiver. In terms of potential impact, my bet is on recently signed Chris Johnson. Of primary backup running backs, Johnson has a free purchase price and projects as a top-20 fantasy back any week David Johnson misses.
Who will be the biggest regression casualty after the Falcons historic 2016 offensive season?
By regression, Matt Ryan gets my vote with Devonta Freeman coming in second. Ryan's 10.2% touchdown rate led the NFL last year and Ryan headlined my touchdown regression post for quarterbacks earlier this offseason. Ryan's previous high mark was 8.4% and he also made the interception regression list for 2017. Ryan in the mid-QB1 range is priced at his ceiling and unlikely to return any profit.
Where is the value in the Panthers pass game?
Christian McCaffrey is the notable addition as a top-10 draft pick and high-level receiving back. However, Carolina (and Cam Newton) have been one of the lowest receiving teams for running backs of late. At high-RB2 ADP, McCaffrey is a clear avoid player needing a Reggie Bush-like rookie season in the pass game to return value. Greg Olsen is the steady force of the pass game and palatable at TE4 ADP. Of all the receivers, tight ends, and McCaffrey, I like Olsen's price and projection the most for this season. Why not Kelvin Benjamin? Around WR30 in ADP, Benjamin has lived off a glut of targets in his two non-injury seasons to-date. With more competition for targets than 2014 or 2016 and new toys McCaffrey and duel-threat Curtis Samuel drafted in the top-50, Benjamin will have a tough time surpassing 110-120 targets and 1,000 yards is beyond the projections of any of the Footballguys staff, appropriately, for his 2017 stat line.
Who is the No.1 receiver?
The ADP shows Cameron Meredith as the clear favorite at WR40. However, this is close to his ceiling when looking at historical PPR finishes for receivers of bottom-half NFL pass games - like Chicago is projected for 2017. On the flip side, Kevin White is much cheaper at WR52 and boasts No.7 overall draft pedigree. Some are writing White off after two injury-filled seasons, but his profile is essentially an 'incomplete' with only a handful of games mid-year to his name in 2016. White will get every opportunity to be the No.1 receiver for Chicago in the near-term and justify his draft position. Meredith offers a backup plan for the offense if White misses time with injury once again.
Should Ezekiel Elliott's potential suspension move his fantasy needle?
As a typical top-3 fantasy selection before his suspension news heated up of late and a short suspension to open the season is on the table. However, there is little legal recourse to point to where it aligns with suspension protocol for the NFL. Assuming there is a suspension (worst case), I still advocate drafting Elliott in the David Johnson and LeVeon Bell zone of the top-3 of redraft. As we saw with LeVeon Bell last season, September games are not why we draft top-shelf running backs in fantasy. The true impact comes late in the season when other owners have sustained injuries (or poor play) and a Johnson-Bell-Elliott owner is rolling out a high-upside, high-floor option which is unmatched on the fantasy landscape. If Elliott is churning out production in November and December, no one will flinch at an early-season stint of missed time. Draft Elliott with confidence in the top-3 and consider yourself lucky if he slips to No.4 or beyond while uncertainty looms.
Is Ameer Abdullah a target or avoid player?
The rest of the Detroit offense is fairly priced by positional ADP. However, Ameer Abdullah is in the RB20 range, rich considering his sub-prototypical build, 2 career rushing touchdowns (spanning 20 games), and crowded competition for targets in the Detroit backfield. Abdullah averaged a shade more than one target per game in 2016, while pass-catching expert Theo Riddick had 6.7 targets per game. Abdullah is the classic back squeezed on both ends of the high-leverage usage spectrum with Riddick tempering Abdullah's pass game potential and Abdullah lacking the size to expect consistent goal line work. At RB2 prices, Abdullah is an avoid player in 2017 with higher upside options like Mike Gillislee, Eddie Lacy, and Danny Woodhead available later of note.
Which receiver is the best value?
Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb are all in the top-40 of positional ADP. Typically, I side with the higher-leverage affordable target players, but Nelson is the best value of the trio at WR9. Nelson has three seasons of at least 13 receiving touchdowns over his last five active seasons, plus has maintained a strong yards-per-catch average while working through his late 20s and early 30s. Nelson finished as the No.2 and No.1 overall wide receiver in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Davante Adams may have more years remaining with Green Bay than Nelson, but Jordy Nelson is one of the best bets for a top-5 finish with an ADP outside the top-5.
Los Angeles Rams
Where is the value on this struggling offense from 2016?
Todd Gurley at RB9 is fair value but no pass game member is inside the top-150 overall in ADP. While Robert Woods was brought in as the notable skill position acquisition this offseason, Tavon Austin is the value play here. Austin has rare movement ability and a top-10 draft pedigree. Austin's usage has been questionable to-date and little has revolved around traditional receiver roles despite his success on deeper routes early in his career. With a complete front office and coaching staff reset for 2017, Austin has appeal as the Rams recalibrate. Austin's ADP is around WR70 and the best bet for any Rams receiver to finish in the top-25. Austin is the perfect late-round stash for an early season reversal of value.
How does the backfield unfold?
The Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook in Round 2. However, the Year 1 results for Round 2 backs have been less than stellar. By my research, just 33% of them since 1999 have emerged with at least five games of 50+ rushing yards, with another 40% churning out 1-to-4 games of the same 50+ rushing yards threshold. Around 25% were complete busts without a single such game. Cook is all the way up at RB16 in ADP, much too high considering the historical odds of true impact. Latavius Murray, however, is in flyer zone beyond RB40. Murray projects as the goal line back plus has averaged more than two receptions per game over his three NFL seasons. Murray, not Cook, is the 2017 value play of the Minnesota backfield.
Who stands to benefit without Brandin Cooks in New Orleans?
The short answer is anyone but Michael Thomas. The second-year receiver is topped out of value with a WR7 ADP. Meanwhile, Willie Snead sits at WR32 and Ted Ginn at WR64. Over the last nine seasons of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, the No.2 fantasy receiver for the Saints has finished in the top-36 in 8-of-9 seasons, including four times in the top-24. Snead and Ginn are both quality bets at their ADP. Thomas, however, at WR7 is faced with a Saints offense which has produced a high-water mark of WR7 as their top receiver over the same nine-year sample and just one other top-10 PPG finish at receiver. This is a spread-around-the-production pass game and the ancillary pieces are the value play, not when a receiver is priced in the top-10 at receiver.
New York Giants
With Brandon Marshall, looking at historical figures for above-average (but not elite) quarterback play and their receivers shows an average WR2 finish of WR47. The No.2 receiver in this range has a 10% chance historically to finish in the top-24 and a 29% shot to be in the top-36. Marshall has an ADP of WR38, but little chance to be a true impact compared to the price. Evan Engram at TE16 is too high as well. While there is little competition for snaps at the tight end position for Engram, the Giants have one of the best receiver trios in the NFL with Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard. The formula for strong tight end production is typically a good quarterback and a depth chart without an overt No.1 receiver. Engram's formula is not ideal in this regard. Plus, even Round 1 rookie tight ends have a murky fantasy outlook. Just 6% of them dating back to 2001 have produced five or more games of 50+ yards in Year 1. 25% outright bust with zero such games. Round 1 tight ends vault up in probability in Year 2 with 31% producing five or more games of 50+ yards, a stark improvement from the tempered rookie successes across the last 15 seasons.
Is Alshon Jeffery worth the sticker price?
Jeffery is the key new addition to Philadelphia's pass game in 2017. Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham did not pan out in 2016 and Torrey Smith is more of an ancillary addition to the depth chart. Jeffery comes with a WR19 ADP, which is reasonable. Assuming Carson Wentz finishes in the QB9-16 range, historically the No.1 receiver has a 40% shot at top-12 production and 68% shot at top-24 numbers. This is a quality spectrum for Jeffery at his price considering he has three seasons of 17+ PPR PPG on his NFL profile to-date.
Who is the value play of the backfield?
Eddie Lacy is the most expensive at RB30. Will his weight control pay off? Lacy is in a critical zone of his NFL career to either pave future seasons of opportunity or flame out. While I rarely recommend multiple backs from the same backfield, Seattle is one of the few cases the cost makes sense. Lacy at RB30 offers strong upside. He has shown adequate passing game potential in his career, plus double-digit touchdown upside. If Lacy were RB20 in ADP, the same profit spectrum would not be present. Secondarily, C.J. Prosise is a strong target player in 2017. Prosise missed much of 2016 with injury but in his six active games (just three had snap volume above 20), Prosise had an impressive 33% of his games of 16+ PPR points and 50% of his games with 12+ PPR points. Beyond Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard, Prosise was the most impressive 2016 rookie running back. In fact, over the last three years, Prosise joined only four other backs to hit the 30%, 50% thresholds in those two categories of production - Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Todd Gurley, and Jeremy Hill. Prosise is near free in redraft ADP and offers the appealing profile of prototypical size, strong athleticism, and passing game prowess.
If you do not believe in Carlos Hyde, what is the backfield play?
First off, I do believe in Carlos Hyde so his RB19 ADP is not a stop sign. In fact, Hyde is a strong target especially in the Round 4 zone of drafts. Joe Williams is the red-hot name this offseason after the story of Kyle Shanahan hand-picking the rookie on Day 3. To offer skepticism of Williams' impact, he is a 24-year-old rookie without a strong profile of production after being a weak recruit. Williams has a non-ideal frame (lower than ideal BMI) at 210 pounds and a straight-line athletic profile with a week 3-cone time, especially for his size. Williams was also a weak receiver in college. Instead of projecting Williams as an early challenger to Carlos Hyde's lead role, Williams backers should shift to considering Williams' chances to unseat Tim Hightower for the No.2 role. Hightower is a jack-of-all-trades savvy veteran with three-down functionality. Hightower was a thorn in Mark Ingram's side and a fantasy impact late in the last two seasons. Hightower is one of the best late value plays at running back this season, especially if concerned about Hyde's hold on the lead role.
Should O.J. Howard be an option for fantasy owners in 2017?
In short, not at his alarmingly high ADP of TE9. The premise of Evan Engram's 'avoid' recommendation applies here with a strong No.1 and No.2 receiver tandem of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. For Howard, add in the presence of Cameron Brate as the veteran stopgap at tight end and Howard's ceiling is in the TE2 zone, not TE1. While not in Tampa Bay's long-term plans after drafting Howard, Brate will see significant snaps, especially early in the season, to temper Howard's fantasy aspirations.
Where is the value in this loaded passing game?
Unless Kirk Cousins is an elite fantasy option, there will be multiple disappointments compared their ADP among the pass-catchers in Washington. While I like Josh Doctson as a prospect, the signing of Terrelle Pryor is a concerning one. Washington is churning over their top two receivers from 2016 in Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Many are pointing to Jamison Crowder as the benefactor. However, Crowder's WR28 ADP is higher than even his breakout 2016 as WR29. As primarily an interior receiver, color me skeptical to bet on continued growth for Crowder as few have succeeded for long outside of the Tom Brady or Peyton Manning-fed options like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. Terrelle Pryor was one of the few receivers this offseason I went back and watched every target from 2016 again after the season. His combination of size and movement are rare for the position and if isolating Pryor's 2016 tape you would never know he was a positional convert and it was his first season of note at wide receiver. Pryor is the biggest roadblock to recommending Josh Docston at his WR47 ADP. I am skeptical Pryor has much upside beyond his WR22 ADP either. There are 214 targets available from the departed Garcon and Jackson last year. Of the two, I would rather go with Doctson at WR47, but do not have a strong play either way. The biggest recommendation is to avoid Jamison Crowder inside the top-30 considering three other (adding Jordan Reed) functional pass-catchers with more prototypically qualities in the same offense.