Roundtable #17

Eavesdrop as various staff members share their views on a range of topics.

This week we discuss the following:


Bench Cousins and Reed?

Kirk Cousins has been on a hot streak over the past five games, especially the last two, but the Washington have already locked up the NFC East and have nothing to play for in Week 17. Can you start him one more time, or do you fear that the Washington will pull him early in their meaningless Week 17 game?

Jordan Reed has also been on quite the tear lately. But given how brittle he is, do you expect the Washington to rest him in Week 17?

Andy Hicks: It depends on their health status and how Jay Gruden feels they would benefit from playing in week 17. Washington won't know their playoff opponent until after they have played, be it Minnesota, Green Bay or Seattle. They also don't want to do the Dallas Cowboys any favors by playing a weakened line up, either.

Washington can't really play Robert Griffin, so I'm pretty sure while the team is on a roll they will continue and play as normal. They can still achieve a winning record with a victory.

If either of the two is rested, it would be Jordan Reed, but he has a chance for a thousand-yard season or breaking the franchise record for touchdowns by a tight end.

Mark Wimer: In a word, yes. Cousins may be sat down because the Washington want to rest some of the offensive linemen who are banged up, and I expect Reed to be sat down as he is nursing a sore shoulder.

Head coach Jay Gruden asserted on Monday at his press conference that he 'has to be smart' about resting players in Week 17. Matt Jones missed Week 16 with a hip injury; DeSean Jackson has been fighting through a sore knee to play. Alfred Morris is a long-time veteran who could probably use a week off. Given all the guys dinged up and the meaningless nature of this game, I expect we see a lot of Colt McCoy, Ryan Grant and Andre Roberts against Dallas this week.

John Mamula: Yes, if you have other options, bench Cousins and Reed. In Week 17, you need to target teams that have motivation. The Washington have nothing to play for and thus carry a high risk of ruin. Even if Cousins or Reed starts, there is a chance they could only play 1Q or a half. Not worth the risk in my opinion.

Justin Howe: With a guy like Cousins, sitting down isn't the only risk. There's also the chance of his overall crappiness bleeding through and creating a poor game, so there's more risk to Cousins than just game flow. But as Mamula explained, "Week 17" is generally all it takes to give me pause on a player whose team lacks motivation. It's just so unpredictable, what coaches will do in a meaningless game, and there are better options even on the waiver wire than a shaky passing game in this particular boat.


Matt Ryan to bounce back?

Matt Ryan has been on a cold streak for his last five games. But his matchup against the Saints could fix that. Where do you rank Ryan among fantasy QBs in Week 17?

Matt Waldman: Delvin Breaux covers Julio Jones this week. Breaux is going to be a good cornerback in this league. It may not look like it statistically, but he's a talent feeling his way through the school of hard knocks that is the NFL. He'll have moments where he looks like a shut-down corner and they often come in the red zone. This is where I think Breaux can shutout Jones. But if Atlanta can manage some successful deep shots—and I by "successful", I mean Matt Ryan having time to step into a throw—Jones could have a huge week. But Matt Ryan needs another player to perform if he's to experience a good week.

That likely falls to Roddy White, who can't get open one-on-one anymore. The guy's first catch in the Carolina game was a curl against man where he stumbled at the top of his stem. It's not an isolated issue. He doesn't have the legs to run the hard-breaking routes that beat man. With almost every route of this type, something goes haywire for him. Last week, Carolina played a lot of zone and Ryan found White with steady doses of passes to the middle of the field. I think this is where White can thrive against the Saints.

The question is whether Kyle Shanahan will stick to this type of game plan against the Saints. I'd take my chances with Ryan this week if my alternative is hoping and praying that a better quarterback doesn't get benched early.

Andy Hicks: The Saints defense seems to cure any ills that may happen to opposing offenses. They have set so many unwanted records for their atrocious defending that Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman have to be played with supreme confidence. Ryan would be in my top five this week and even higher, purely on matchup alone.

Mark Wimer: Actually, Ryan bounced back last week against the Panthers—Ryan FINALLY went over 300 yards passing again last weekend, going 23 of 30 for 306 yards passing, one TD and zero interceptions thrown versus Carolina's top-flight D, and Julio Jones got on track with 11 targets for 9/178/1 receiving. Now, if you are asking if I am comfortable that Ryan will continue his upwards trajectory from last week, the answer is 'NO'. Ryan has been one of the most frustrating quarterbacks in the NFL this year, and he seems bewildered in the offense at times. I think he needs another training camp in this system to really get comfortable. Though the Saints' defense is awful enough that Ryan may still go over 300 yards again. But it's not a sure thing, in my opinion.

John Mamula: Based strictly on his matchup, I have Ryan as a Top five QB this week. The only quarterbacks that I would play ahead of Ryan would be Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson. The Saints defense has been terrible this season allowing a league leading 43 passing touchdowns. To put that in perspective, the Eagles have allowed 34 passing touchdowns, the second most allowed. The Saints defense turns average quarterbacks into good quarterbacks. Ryan has a strong chance for multiple touchdowns this weekend.

Justin Howe: The Saints pass defense is atrocious, yes, but it's improving somewhat. Three of their last five opponents have finished below 250 passing yards, and one of the others (Jacksonville) was in an early 24-0 hole and did nothing but throw wildly down the stretch. And Ryan's Falcons simply don't have that dominant statistical outlook. Julio Jones was masterful last week, but remains the only viable downfield threat in Atlanta; if a defense keeps a lid on its secondary, Jones is looking at one of those 8-catch, 80-yard games that doesn't boost Ryan's starting value. And there's not much TD potential here, as the Falcons like to run the ball near the goal line.

Banking on Ryan is banking on game flow and Julio Jones' brilliance. They're decent bets this week, but Ryan can't be viewed as clear-cut a QB1 as Blake Bortles was last week.


Doug Baldwin against the Cardinals?

Baldwin has been red hot down the stretch, but he's got a tough matchup this week against Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals. What are your projections for him in Week 17, including the odds you give him to score a touchdown?

Matt Waldman: I'd put Baldwin's odds at 45 percent. Peterson isn't infallible and those odds of getting beat increase when receiver assignments come with a mobile quarterback capable of doubling the amount of time that you have to cover a receiver. But the odds aren't high because Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse both have the vertical speed to do the same thing as Baldwin on a Russell Wilson scramble drill—and without Peterson covering them.

Andy Hicks: It depends on how much Seattle wants to win. Arizona has the potential to be playing for the number one seed and have a guaranteed bye so have more to play for. Seattle will be the fifth or sixth seed and won't know which until after they have finished their game. It won't matter to the Seahawks if it is Washington or Green Bay or Minnesota. They will fancy their chances against any of these three teams and think they will meet Arizona again in the playoffs. They have more reason to be cagy and not show as much. Therefore I think Doug Baldwin will have a one in five chance of a touchdown.

Mark Wimer: It think that the Seahawks will have to throw the ball to stay in this game given the poor performance among their "The Replacements" running backs last week. Baldwin will see a lot of opportunities, so he should have a chance to bust a long score. I give him 50-50 odds to go over 100 yards with a TD, as he should see north of 12 targets in this game.

John Mamula: It's very difficult to bench Baldwin after his performance the past month. The total in the game is currently at 47 points and Seattle is a 6.5 point underdog. That implies a game script with Russell Wilson passing during the second half. If Wilson is passing, odds are that Baldwin should have another strong outing. I have Baldwin projected for six receptions for 84 yards and one touchdown. I give Baldwin a 60% shot at scoring a touchdown this week.

Justin Howe: Baldwin has been dynamic, and my weekly pessimism has been damaging, but this outburst just doesn't make sense. And it makes even less sense to expect more when Baldwin, a try-hard type who lacks great physical gifts, takes on a freak like Peterson. He's really only had one objectively poor game in coverage all year, and he's helped to erase the likes of Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson from matchups already. If he's largely isolated on Baldwin as expected, Baldwin may beat him for a big play, but it wouldn't be wise to bet hard on him winning the overall matchup.

I can't responsibly project Baldwin beyond a line around five for 80, with a modest (say 35-40%) shot at finding the end zone. You can't sit him, of course. But if you're just overloaded at WR and are staking your championship on Baldwin against Eric Decker or Sammy Watkins, I'm opting for either of them.


Arizona wide receivers

In what order do you like the three Cardinals wide receivers against the Seahawks this week?

Matt Waldman: This is a tough one. If John Brown were healthy, I'd choose him because the Seahawks struggle against speedsters with route skills. But I'm not convinced he's at full speed. Michael Floyd is capable of being the guy this week, but he lacks Brown's acceleration that gives the Seahawks fits. Fitzgerald becomes my guy by default, because the Seahawks have experienced some communication breakdowns in the slot and Fitzgerald is one of those rare physical receivers capable of withstanding the punishment of this hard-hitting linebacker and safety unit.

Andy Hicks: Seattle is not infallible against the pass this year, but I think they are going to go vanilla against Arizona this week and will think they play again in the playoffs. Basically whichever matchup Carson Palmer fancies. I assume he will steer clear of Richard Sherman and with John Brown not at his best I think Michael Floyd is the most likely to see the end zone, while Larry Fitzgerald will see the most catches.

Mark Wimer: In a PPR league I might go Fitzgerald, Floyd, and Brown.

John Mamula: Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, then John Brown. Richard Sherman will spend a lot of time on Brown and I want no part of that matchup.

Justin Howe: As always, when an offense is facing the Seahawks, I look at the complementary options. You know, the guys Richard Sherman won't spend more than a few snaps, if at all, covering. The Seahawks boast a dominant scheme, but their non-Sherman cover men are often fairly ordinary, to the point that talented receivers win their share of one-on-one matchups despite reputation.

So where do we look? I'm peeking into the slot, where Jeremy Lane has been roasted lately and bumping Larry Fitzgerald up my rankings a bit. But he's just not the same dominator he was early in the year, and there's a lot more value on the outside, where field-stretchers John Brown and Michael Floyd have much higher upside. Brown is more ingrained in the offense and sees plenty of slot work himself, but Floyd was dominant (7 for 113 and two TDs) in their earlier meeting.

All told, I like Brown the most pragmatically, though Floyd offers the best ceiling. Fitzgerald is a bit of a wild card himself, but has the safest floor.


Tight ends on the rise

Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce both took a while to heat up, but have come on strong in recent weeks. Who do you like better to keep it going through Week 17?

Matt Waldman: With all things relatively equal, I go with talent and Kelce is significantly more talented than Ertz. He simply does more things well than Ertz as a receiver, a blocker, a route runner, and a ball carrier. More tools in your bag often means more opportunities.

Andy Hicks: The Philadelphia situation is likely to be a mess, while the Chiefs could still win the division with a Broncos loss. They both play at the same time, so the Chiefs have more to play for. Has to be Kelce.

Mark Wimer: Kelce—the Eagles are going to be starting to evaluate talent as re-instated personnel man Executive VP of Football Operations Howie Roseman will again head the Eagles' personnel department for 2016. He's got to start working on reversing (or at least addressing) the mess that the fired Chip Kelly left behind there in Philadelphia. The current Eagles' starters will play a while, but Kelce is in a game that counts for the AFC West crown while the Eagles are playing out the string against a Washington club that will likely either not play their starters at all or pull them after a cameo appearance. I look for a backup-fest for much of that Eagles-Giants game. It may be Orleans Darkwa versus Kenjon Barner battling to be the top running back of that game. Sounds more like a UFC bout than a football game...

John Mamula: I agree with Mark and Andy. I prefer Kelce over Ertz. The Eagles situation is a mess. The Chiefs still have motivation to win the division and playoff seeding.

Justin Howe: I much prefer Ertz for Week 17. His offense is guaranteed to throw significantly more than Kelce's, his matchup should produce more scoring, and he's a bigger part of the passing game at the moment. The Eagles are in full-blown observation mode and are probably far more interested in showcasing Ertz than Kansas City is in working Kelce along.


Drafting RBs early

This year's RB crop was filled with busts. Look at the RBs drafted in the top three rounds. A rather large fraction were outperformed by plenty lately-rounders or waiver-wire pickups. Should savvy fantasy owners be drafting WRs and TEs exclusively in the first few rounds? (Note: after 16 weeks, just four RBs have 1,000+ yards while 18 WRs do.)

Matt Waldman: Is it a coincidence that I'm on this week's roundtable, an early proponent of what I've termed the Upside Down Draft since the mid-2000s, with this question sitting here? If so, I like happy accidents.

Should more people consider the UDD-"Do the Opposite"-"Zero RB" as a draft strategy next year? If the answer is "yes," it's only based on those people experiencing a realization about their drafting skills or their leagues' drafts and whether they can exploit a tendency.

But there's a good case to say "no." Todd Gurley was phased into the starting lineup this year. Le'Veon Bell and Marshawn Lynch got hurt and the Seahawks' offensive line had major kinks to work out for at least half the season. The Chargers wanted to run more, but their offensive line was a M*A*S*H unit. Matt Forte missed multiple games. Mark Ingram II missed multiple games. LeSean McCoy missed multiple games. And the Rams, Cowboys, and Broncos had QB problems.

These are the types of developments that I often cite as reasons to go UDD—"stuff" happens to RBs and they aren't the safest picks early on. History shows that RB is often the most dangerous early-round position of choice if you're playing the numbers game. But I'll bet that this year had more of these nutty circumstances than average.

It means if you're in leagues with slow adopters, UDD is your ace. If you're in a league where folks can be trendy with their strategies, you'll want to take a balanced approach early on and nab some RBs because having enough UDD drafters in a league will net you value at RB.

Andy Hicks: Only four of the top 12 fantasy backs drafted on average got close to their draft slot or better:

Adrian Peterson, Lamar Miller, Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy.

Mark Ingram II, Frank Gore, Latavius Murray, Todd Gurley and Jonathan Stewart are the only expected RB2s to do that or better.

The other 15 guys disappointed.

All the other current fantasy stud running backs came from outside the expected top 24 and if you liked running backs with a first name starting with D, you probably did well: Devonta Freeman, Danny Woodhead, DeAngelo Williams, Doug Martin, David Johnson, Darren McFadden etc.

Every year is different though. Once all the off season moves are done with we can see how team situations shake up and see where the depth is in fantasy drafts. High quality receivers will be plentiful and therefore the rarity may be running backs. If however you can get fantasy points out of running backs late in drafts again, then we can draft heavily where the quality is and then take a quantity over quality approach at running back.

As Matt's Upside Down drafting emphasizes, you need to be one step ahead and as usual you let the value come to your draft.

Chad Parsons: The NFL is changing and fewer running backs are that prototypical high-workload option consistently like years ago. But I look at the preseason ADP and see reasons for the underwhelming season from the top guys. The top-12 included plenty of options 27 or older (on the historical downside from expecting a peak-type season) like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy, and Justin Forsett. Placing a high-priced bet on backs like that is dicey. Then add C.J. Anderson—a marginal talent on a declining offense, and Eddie Lacy to the fold—who has oscillated between 'good' big and 'bad' big in terms of his weight in his career, and there were landmines all over the place. Le'Veon Bell's injury hurt, Jeremy Hill is a straight-line big back who benefitted greatly from well-defined holes in 2014.

Overall, I would have felt much better about the 'early running back' if they were younger. I will like the crop in '16 going high in drafts as they are entering or within their prime years.

Mark Wimer: I've been concentrating on elite wide receivers and (in leagues with 1.5 PPR for tight ends) elite tight ends in the early rounds of my season-long drafts for years now, and I've experienced notable successes and failures with that strategy—largely due to injuries or other unanticipated problems (suspensions for whatever NFL reason, etc.).

I do think that, because of the way the NFL has slanted the rules to benefit the passing game and wide receivers in recent years, we have more clarity at the wide receiver position going into 2016 as to who is going to be a stud, first-round worthy selection (perennial favorites like Julio Jones; Antonio Brown; A.J. Green; Brandon Marshall: some new rising talents like Odell Beckham Jr Jr.; Allen Robinson; DeAndre Hopkins; Amari Cooper; Kelvin Benjamin; Mike Evans) and there is a huge number of WR 2's who could perform like WR one on any given weekend (or for half-a-year, if we're talking Doug Baldwin).

In contrast, I think it is MUCH harder to come up with a list of sure-fire, unless-injured, first round RB selections. Adrian Peterson (though he'll win the rushing title this year, most likely) is hitting the post-30 wall sometime soon; the Falcons' offense was herky-jerky for much of 2015 limiting Devonta Freeman in the second half of the season (and he's a one-year wonder at this point). T.J. Yeldon didn't get many opportunities to score in pass-happy Jacksonville. Arian Foster has ANOTHER serious injury to rehab. Marshawn Lynch may switch teams and is starting to show wear-and-tear even if he's in Seattle again next year. And so forth. We'll see how free agency plays out, but right now I'm likely going WR-WR or WR-TE depending on scoring system.

John Mamula: The past few seasons have shown us that WR is the safest way to go early in your season long draft. WRs such as Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr, and Antonio Brown all performed well this season. If you drafted a stud RBs such as Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, or Le'Veon Bell, chances are that you had a rough season. There seems to be more variance on a year to year basis at the RB position. This is due to injuries and the changing landscape of the RB position with committees. When starting off your 2016 season long draft, remember, you can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it in the first round. If you are trying to build a team to get you into the playoffs, starting with a stud WR is the path to success.

Justin Howe: This calls for a complex answer; to be brief, I say a fantasy owner (generally) needs to secure one stud back, then ignore the position for a good 6-8 rounds.

Yes, you want one of the top RBs, and no, you don't want to assemble. It's relatively rare that top-tier backs underperform unless they get injured, and I've found it's unwise to try and project hypothetical injuries with too much confidence. Securing a top-shelf RB is important, providing high weekly usage and opportunity for fantasy points from several different methods (sheer volume, great yardage outlook, exceptional TD opportunity, etc.). But the second and third tiers of RBs are tricky and feature modest success rates—C.J. Anderson, Jeremy Hill, and DeMarco Murray come to mind—and the middle rounds are largely a wasteland for RB production. Historically speaking, you're just not as likely to land Le'Veon Bell production in Rounds 2-6 as you think you are.

And fantasy football is working in our favor lately, as the ultra-rich QB, WR, and TE spots are generally loaded well into the middle rounds. This sets an owner up to land a secure, dynamic RB with a sky-high usage profile, a mosaic of WR and TE values from throughout the next several rounds, and a handful of low-risk, high-upside RB lottery tickets in the late rounds.

For a top-shelf, roster-defining first-round running back, I'll only accept an option who's:

1. Intimately involved in the passing game. I don't mean this in the way that Doug Martin catches 1-3 dump-offs per game, I want a back who will see most of the passing down snaps AND figure into his play-caller's thought process in that area. In other words, this should be a RB with a weekly floor of 3-4 receptions,

2. Predictably used near the goal line. Much of our league-winning production will come from touchdowns, and most of those will come from within the 10-yard line. So in the first round I'll usually glaze over the likes of Jamaal Charles or (again) Martin in favor of a RB I can trust to find the end zone. Yes, I know it's wholly possible that Charles or Martin reaches some ridiculous yardage or reception total that compensates for a low TD mark, or maybe just breaks so many long TD runs that the goal line opportunities don't matter. But if I'm hunting for a no-nonsense RB1, I'm not gambling on one of those panning out. I'm banking on what I can confidently project onto a situation-proof workhorse.

3. Trending upward—or at least should be. Todd Gurley and David Johnson are fresh young backs with no mileage and unconscionable production upsides. Le'Veon Bell would hold a similar profile if not for a season-ending injury. Conversely, I'm nervous about Adrian Peterson, who's well into the age bracket that produces steep declines, or Jeremy Hill, whose stake in the Bengals offense has been shakier in Year Two than in Year One.

So, if you're not attacking RB early, it's probably best to skip it until the seventh or eighth round. At which point you'll need to throw several RB darts at the board in hopes 1-3 will stick and produce. Take heart, though—a handful usually do, and you'll have more turns with the toy claw machine than anyone. Now reconcile that risk with the risk of your safe, conservative early-round RB stable going down with injuries or just playing poorly. Suddenly, the darts you've thrown at talented, late-round options look very similar to the ones you're throwing at Adrian Peterson.


Looking to 2016

Suppose Le'Veon Bell is the first RB off the board in next season's draft? Who should be the second RB taken?

Matt Waldman: I'll answer the RB questions with some "if-then" statements:

If the Falcons land a receiver or tight end capable of beating man-to-man coverage and the offensive line stays relatively healthy and intact, then Devonta Freeman gets the nod. He has always been capable of being a good NFL starter and his hot start was a combination of his ability behind a line that opened holes and defenses that yet to game-plan against a scheme that lacked the personnel to counter a full-on sellout against the run. If Atlanta can find a free agent or great rookie capable of taking pressure off Julio Jones and the line can continue to gel, Freeman should earn a similar number of touchdowns and a lot more carries and yards—even if Tevin Coleman makes some strides that earn him a slightly larger share of the workload.

If the Buccaneers re-sign Doug Martin then the Boise State earns consideration. The Buccaneers not only entered the season with a rookie quarterback, but an unsung guard-center combo and two rookie linemen and Martin has five yards per carry after 15 games. Give Jameis Winston a full off season, a healthy tight end (also vital to a power ground game), and a healthy receiving corps that should include second-year sleeper Kenny Bell, and the red zone woes should continue to improve, which means Martin's TD total should be double-digits. Combine that with his yardage and Martin could be worthy. The fumbles are a concern, but some of that has come from extra effort to create in situations where they've leaned on him.

If the Vikings can maintain a healthy offensive line, Adrian Peterson is still one of the three most talented runners in the NFL. The Vikings line woes were horrific before the season ever began and Peterson still manages to be the odd-on favorite for the yardage crown. Take the age talk and throw it in the trash, Peterson isn't falling off a cliff next year. Of the "If-then" backs on this list, Peterson is the guy I'd have the most difficult time bypassing as my No.2 back on the board. And if the Vikings line is finally healthy and stays that way, I wouldn't rule out taking him over Le'Veon Bell.

If the Rams can find a starting quarterback, Todd Gurley deserves a look. The guy wasn't even a year removed from an ACL tear and he managed 229-1108-10 through 13 games? Yeah, Eddie Georgia will be ready to roll in St. Louis Titans offense (no, I didn't mix my teams accidentally).

If David Johnson earns the starting gig next year in Arizona, I'll be mighty tempted to roll with one of the most physically talented backs in this 2016 rookie class. In my pre-draft RSP publication, I wrote that "If [Johnson] was as talented a runner as he is a receiver, he'd be the best back in this class. The tempting thing about Johnson is that he's close enough to become a refined runner that his upside will be difficult to pass up." What really helped Johnson produce this year is the fact that running backs don't have to be as conceptually refined with their decision-making or vision when running behind a gap scheme. Most of the time, gap runs are fill-in-the-blank answers rather than the multiple-choice of zone schemes. The addition of Mike Iupati and a healthy passing game make this ground attack go in 2015. If Johnson is named the feature back, look out.

So what if all of these conditions work out? My list in order is Peterson, Gurley, Martin, Johnson, and Freeman. At least for this hour...

Andy Hicks: I think that's a big IF. A lot can happen between now and the fantasy drafts of 2016 and Bell missed a significant portion of the 2015 season. I also don't think DeAngelo Williams will go back to the two carry a game guy the Steelers were expecting either.

Matt laid the groundwork for the prime candidates to be the first or second RB off the board and as was proven with Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy this year, safe is not something that generally works out for stud running backs. There is much more security in the wide receiver position in the first round. Having said all that I will look favorably at Adrian Peterson, Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley in my top three, with Le'Veon Bell, Doug Martin and David Johnson just behind. Coaching changes, the draft and free agency are going to see come changes and with Philadelphia already removing Chip Kelly I think DeMarco Murray comes back into play with the right scheme.

Chad Parsons: Todd Gurley is my choice, David Johnson I project to be in the mix, as well as T.J. Yeldon and Devonta Freeman. While I like Yeldon and Freeman, Gurley and Johnson have explosive upside. What Johnson has done to close the season with the Arizona lead role is historic and Arizona's offense (as long as Palmer stays healthy) is one of the best in the NFL. Johnson reminds me of a baby deer where he still has some awkwardness to his movement and style, but is dominating while figuring things out. Gurley's lack of usage in the passing game is my biggest gripe. In the middle of the season he was seeing three or more receptions a week, but has faded in opportunities since. Even a slight boost in St. Louis' passing game (or quarterback, or both) would give more confidence to a 20+ PPG breakout season from Gurley next season.

Mark Wimer: I'm in wait-and-see mode on free agency for this question. Marshawn Lynch might land somewhere new and compelling; Todd Gurley has the most talent of any of the new young backs, but the surrounding offense in St. Louis needs drastic upgrades across the board (especially at quarterback); Doug Martin went off this year in a contract year, but will he go off a cliff again if he gets paid in Tampa? If Arizona lets Chris Johnson go and commits to David Johnson, he might be the superior pick over Gurley simply because the Arizona offense is awesome. I guess if I had to pick the second running back selected in 2016 based on what we know now, it would be Gurley as he is a special talent, but I may not pick a running back until the fourth round next season so I'm not terribly enthused about any of the top options as of the end of 2015.

John Mamula: Currently, I would consider either Davonta Freeman or Todd Gurley as the second RB. If the Rams make an effort to improve their offensive line, Gurley gets the nod for me. If the Rams do not make any changes on offense, I would lean Freeman based on the opportunity that he should have moving forward in the Falcons offense.

Justin Howe: The two I'll be looking at most closely are Todd Gurley and David Johnson. Dynamic young backs with no mileage and little competition, I don't see a better mix of floor and ceiling. Gurley's offensive situation likely won't be sexy, but he's explosive enough, with that Hall of Fame athleticism, to create tons of unseen yardage and touchdowns. That kind of ability is often overrated, but can really maximize a guy's overall opportunity. A ho-hum 12-attempt day carries a much hotter yardage outlook for a dominant talent like Gurley. And he won't be a situational guy—he'll be the unquestioned offensive lynch pin, used on all levels of the field and (assumedly) as a bigger part of the passing game. Johnson should find himself in a similar boat—a clear lead back capable of maximizing touches in any game script—but I worry a bit more about his outlook than Gurley's. He just doesn't profile as the same dominant back as Gurley—he's not built as well, nor does he have a great track record for inside running—and will run in a less run-happy offense. Both are outstanding options, but Gurley's floor is more palatable.

How early would you draft Cam Newton next year? Would anyone go top five? Would anyone not pick him in the first round? (Assume a standard 12-team league that starts 1/2/3/1/1/1.)

Matt Waldman: I'm excited about Newton's continuous development as an NFL player, but it wasn't a fantasy season for the ages. It was a typical season for a top-producing fantasy quarterback since 2011. And if Newton doesn't play the entire game this weekend, it will be among the lowest outputs for a "top-2" fantasy quarterback in a season since 2010. If I were to consider a quarterback early in a draft, Newton and Brady would be on the list. But I can't imagine picking a first-round QB.

Andy Hicks: It's fun to play these games now, but we really have to see how things shake up. Like Matt said I can't see a QB going in round one unless they are a clear standout. On the bright side he will get Kelvin Benjamin back, but it's hard to see how the Panthers better their 2015 regular season. With the class at the top of the receiver board, Rob Gronkowski and the lack of premier running backs, letting someone else take Cam Newton early is the prudent move.

Chad Parsons: I am a late-round quarterback guy through and through, so it takes tremendous value to pull the trigger on a quarterback even in the first five rounds of the standard format outlined. Nothing against Newton, who I do think is the top option, but I would pass well beyond the first round. The position is replaceable and plenty of options are available—with minimal competition—from the waiver wire in the opening weeks of the season.

Mark Wimer: Newton would be a second-round selection in my book, and since somebody will over-value him and jump on him later in the first round, I'm OK with that. There are plenty of other QBs with upside to be had later in the draft—that's been true for several seasons now. I rolled with Russell Wilson and Blake Bortles a good bit during 2015, and my only problem in the second half of the season was picking which one would have a bigger afternoon from week to week.

John Mamula: I would probably not draft Newton in the first round. I prefer to target elite RBs and WRs in the first round. I prefer to wait for QB since it is such a deep position. But if Newton dropped to me in the second round, then I would gladly draft him.

Justin Howe: Newton won't be an early target for me. And that's not only because I typically stream mid-level QBs in yearly leagues—I just think he'll be wildly overvalued. Waldman put it beautifully—that Newton has needed a historic late-season explosion to net good, not earth-shattering, overall production. He's an improving passer for sure, and Kelvin Benjamin's return will be key, but will he out-touchdown Ted Ginn Jr's 2015? If so, by how much? Benjamin's many things, but an efficient, lean-on-me target he's not, so a jump in Newton's efficiency can't be expected. All told, I see his 2015 passing numbers as an absolute ceiling, and I wouldn't pony up an early (first 3-5 rounds) pick to hope for a repeat.

And even if he does repeat his passing success, I'm still not on board in expecting a similar season. The fact is that his rushing opportunity has been absurdly high this year. He enters Week 17 with 126 rushes—one short of his career high—and 15 have come from inside the 10. I could see both numbers staying high, but again, I'm not paying a high cost to hope a wild trend keeps trending wildly.

The first five WRs off the board in most drafts will probably be Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr Jr, Allen Robinson, and DeAndre Hopkins. Who's next?

Matt Waldman: A.J. Green. He and Randy Moss are the only two receivers with five consecutive 1000-yard seasons to begin a career. It's easy to know what you're going to get from Green. Unless Hue Jackson leaves, Marvin Jones Jr, Tyler Eifert, and Mohamad Sanu get hurt, Green is the guy.

A player who most won't draft this early and understandably so, because his ACL rehab will automatically keep his value deflated is Jordy Nelson. He was a huge reason why the Packers offense wasn't stellar once the NFL reached the period of the season where it could use reliable scouting information and scheme against its opponents. Nelson is a great receiver and if he doesn't have any rehab complications next year, he could easily bump one of those receivers you mentioned from the top five.

Andy Hicks: There are a few others that should be considered top 10 material, Matt already mentioned A.J. Green, but Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandin Cooks, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant all deserve consideration. Add in Jeremy Maclin, Jarvis Landry, Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins and even Kelvin Benjamin and you will be spoiled for choice for WR1s and WR2s next year.

Right now I would have A.J. Green next, but next year could be the perfect year to go WR in the first two rounds.

Chad Parsons: I am in the minority I would guess, but Mike Evans is right there on my board. Also, Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, A.J. Green, Martavis Bryant, and the lead receiver in Chicago are better value propositions due to being below the listed players in terms of cost. I say lead Chicago receiver because I will be all over Kevin White if Alshon Jeffery is not retained for some reason (he probably will), but even in that scenario would not cost anywhere near top-five prices, more like mid-to-low WR2 prices.

Mark Wimer: I can see perennial favorites like A.J. Green; Brandon Marshall: or some new rising talents like Amari Cooper; Kelvin Benjamin; Mike Evans going off the board after the five that you mention. I think there is a long list of potential WR #1 entering next season, as compared to running backs where even the top five at the position are murky at best.

John Mamula: Dez Bryant would be the next WR off the board for me. I think Bryant and Romo will bounce back strong next season. Injuries derailed all fantasy relevance in Dallas this NFL season. Monitor the ADP of Dallas skill position players next preseason as they may be a value.

Justin Howe: I'd put the smart money on A.J. Green and Dez Bryant, two clear-cut fantasy WR1s with a half-decade behind them. In fact, I'd take either over Allen Robinson. But the offseason is long and full of narratives, so I could well be in the Mike Evans or Alshon Jeffery camps in that spot. Both are gifted on ungodly levels and, assuming Jeffery re-ups as Chicago's focal point, both will enter 2016 as target dominators. But Evans and Jeffery don't hog looks like Julian Edelman or Keenan Allen do—they're big-play artists capable of challenging for the league lead in yardage and touchdowns as well. I'm concerned about Jeffery's long-term health, but Evans' upside makes him the clear-cut head of the next tier for me.

That will do it for this edition of the Footballguys Roundtable. Please join us again next week.


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