There are many fantasy questions that we are seeking clarity on as training camp sets to begin; in this article, I tackle the most pressing fantasy question for every team in the NFC. You can find my AFC article here.
Who is going to be the Cardinals starting quarterback?
For fantasy purposes, Sam Bradford is the desired option. When healthy, which isn’t often, Bradford is a top end quarterback who has an insane 72% completion rate over his last two “seasons,” albeit his average depth of target was not very high. That doesn’t matter much on this team for fantasy purposes though, with the three main usable assets, Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson and tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, all doing most of their work close to the line of scrimmage. In his one and a half starts last season Bradford went 32-of-43, for 382 yards, 3 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Not bad at all.
If Bradford can’t get healthy, at least the Cardinals have this year's most NFL-ready rookie quarterback in UCLA’s Josh Rosen who played under former NFL coach Jim Mora, in college. While he most likely won’t be a good fantasy asset this year, standing 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, Rosen has the size, intelligence, arm strength, and experience to float Johnson, Fitzgerald, and Seals-Jones in fantasy every week. Bradford should work as a great mentor if nothing else, and he also trained with Aaron Rodgers during the off-season.
The biggest hurdle for this team is their questionable offensive line; fortunately left tackle, D.J. Humphries is a capable starter, but they need left guard Mike Iupati, right guard Justin Pugh, and right tackle Andre Smith to all stay healthy and return to form. If everything comes together, this unit could surprise, but there is very little depth.
Other things to watch are the development of Seals-Jones, who is a great late round sleeper, and whether or not rookie wide receiver Christian Kirk can play as well outside as he did in the slot in college. I’m not sold he can just yet since he’s more of a Randall Cobb type receiver. Beyond Kirk, who else will step up between Chad Williams, Brice Butler, J.J. Nelson and the return of Greg Little will be intriguing to see. Many dismiss Little, but he’s been putting in a lot of work with Josh Gordon, you never know.
Will this offense take off in year two under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian?
The Falcons offense performed at a historical pace in 2016 under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, scoring 30 or more points in 11 of 16 games. This was the 5th highest mark in NFL history, and Matt Ryan’s passer rating was 117.1, which was also the fifth highest mark in NFL history.
It all came crashing down with Steve Sarkisian at the helm; however, it wasn’t as bad as it appeared. The Falcons finished second in drive success rate and yards per drive last season, while Ryan ended the year tied for second in overall PFF grade and ranking third in adjusted completion percentage. Additionally, 8 of his 12 interceptions came off of tipped passes or receiver errors.
Their biggest downfall was how atrocious the Falcons were in the red zone, which should hopefully be fixed by better playing calling, better luck, the addition of rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley and the advancement of third-year tight end, Austin Hooper.
With literally no weaknesses anywhere in this offensive unit, look for Matt Ryan to rebound this year and he’s a massive value at his current ADP.
How much work will C.J. Anderson steal from Christian McCaffery?
Christian McCaffrey owners hate C.J. Anderson. They don’t want to hear about him, they don’t want to talk about him, and they certainly don’t want to draft him.
Unfortunately for McCaffery owners though, nearly all of Jonathan Stewart’s 198 abandoned carries are going to go to Anderson, including half of the Panthers’ goal-line work that Stewart handled. In fact, McCaffery averaged fewer runs per game (7.3) last season than quarterback Cam Newton (8.7), and keep in mind, Newton is a very active runner around the goal-line too.
McCaffery averaged just 3.7 yards-per-carry and a near bottom of the league 2.05 yards after contact, while Anderson averaged 4.1 yards-per-carry and a rock solid 2.78 yards after contact. For reference, the league average yards after contact was 2.5 yard. While McCaffery should have more than the 117 carries he had last season, he will probably end up pushing closer to 150 carries this year than 200. The Panthers also have a terrible offensive line, so it's not a pretty picture.
Things don't look much better in the passing game. While McCaffery is a talented player and will undoubtedly catch a ton of passes, we probably won't see an uptick there either. Anderson was PFF's top rated pass blocking running back last year with a grade of 83, while McCaffery was not even in the top 50, with a grade of 47. If Anderson plays well in camp, McCaffery’s second round ADP is going to look like a reach.
Will this offense be this year’s Rams?
The hype train has left the station, and Twitter has declared in no uncertain terms, the 2018 Bears offense is going to be as good, if not better than, the 2017 Rams. Twitter is convinced of it. Beat writers have declared that every single offensive skill player is going to have a monstrous season. Even Taylor Gabriel has been declared the new Tyreek Hill!
Time to pump the breaks just a little.
New head coach Matt Nagy comes over from the Chiefs and is bringing everything Andy Reid has taught him, including a modern offense that will feature a ton of RPO (run, pass, option) plays. Nagy is an excellent hire for the Bears, but how does this team actually stack up against the 2017 Rams?
This offense starts with the development of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. While it’s possible he takes a Jared Goff-like second-year leap, keep in mind Goff was a three-year starter in college, Trubisky only started one year at North Carolina. Additionally, it’s almost unfair to expect Nagy to pull off what Rams coach Sean McVay did last season. I’m optimistic, but expectations should be held in check.
Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen hope to combine to form a Todd Gurley like season, unfortunately, their rotation in and out of the offense will tip this offenses hand. Howard is an old-school running back playing in the modern age. He looks great as a runner with his physical play but can kill an offense with drops in the passing game at the most inopportune times.
Last season, as Evan Silva of Rotoworld, pointed out, Howard faced eight or more defenders in the box on 43% of this carries, finishing with less than 80 yards in 11 of 16 games. Hopefully, Nagy’s play calling and the addition of the teams receiving weapons can help reverse that trend. Sports Info Solutions also pointed out that over the last two seasons, Howard has averaged 1.7 more yards-per-carry when there were three receivers on the field and 2.6 more yards-per-carry when running out of the shotgun. Unfortunately, just 31% of his carries came in three-receiver sets and 24% of his runs out of shotgun last year. That should change this season, as Nagy had Kareem Hunt handle 45% of his carries in three-receiver sets and 49% of Hunt’s runs last year came out of the shotgun.
While they aren’t Gurley, both running backs are good fantasy assets, who are priced at a value.
Allen Robinson offers mouthwatering upside as the teams Sammy Watkins receiver, however, Robinson is coming off of a torn ACL and hasn’t really played well since 2015. So far he has looked great in camp, but he need that knee to hold up.
Taylor Gabriel is a great gadget player, but he’s certainly not Tyreek Hill, and he’s also not a reliable receiver for a young quarterback as Robert Woods proved to be. Kevin White? Who knows, you sure don’t.
The Bears are expecting rookie receiver Anthony Miller to have a Cooper Kupp like rookie season. It’s lofty expectations for sure, but Miller could very well be up to the challenge. Standing 5-foot-11, 190 pounds with 4.5 forty speed, Miller is built in that Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jarvis Landry sort of mold. He runs good routes, has strong hands and plays with a lot of physicality after the catch. The kid is a stud and has been dominating in camp.
Trey Burton stands 6-foot-2, 224 pounds with 4.62 forty speed, a 30" vertical, and a 112" broad jump (47% SPARQ athletic score). While Adam Shaheen stands 6-foot-6, 278 pounds, with 4.79 forty speed, a 32.5" vertical, and 121" broad jump (77% SPARQ athletic score). The duo should provide Trubisky with a pair of reliable big targets, and he targeted the tight end position on a solid 24% of his throws last season.
For fantasy purposes, all eyes are on Burton, and in four career games as the Eagles starting tight end; he averaged 3.5 receptions, 45 yards, and 1 touchdown per game. That is very solid, although not spectacular since touchdowns can be fluky.
While the 2018 Bears probably won’t end up being the 2017 Rams, the 2019 Bears very well could be.
Is rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup going to be a viable fantasy asset?
Gallup stands 6-foot-0, 205 pounds with 4.51 forty speed. He is a tough, physical receiver with good size, long arms, and strong hands. He compares favorably to two others Michael’s- Michael Crabtree and Michael Thomas. The Cowboys have the third-most targets available this season with 272, and Gallup's only competition are the pedestrian trio of Terrance Williams, Deonte Thompson, and Allen Hurns. That’s not very impressive. As for Hurns, he should back himself into a solid fantasy season through sheer volume alone as this year’s Robert Woods.
Will the Lions finally have their first capable running back since Barry Sanders?
The Lions have struggled to find a run game for years. Theo Riddick is locked in as the teams pass-catching back but has proven incapable of doing much more than that. He is the Detroit version of James White.
Ameer Abdullah is a talented back and a freak athlete. Unfortunately, he is not very big, and despite his all-around talent, he has not been able to make it work in Detroit. He’s likely to be traded sometime during the pre-season, so he’s worth keeping on your radar depending on where he lands.
The Lions added bruising short yardage, and goal line back extraordinaire, LeGarrette Blount to their squad this off-season. Blount played under head coach Matt Patricia in New England, so he’s been hand-picked to help this team get over their red zone struggles and to help close out games. While Blount is a zero in the passing game, he’s capable of scoring 10+ touchdowns.
Finally, the Lions inexplicably traded up to grab Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round of this year’s draft. Not only did they not need to trade up to get him, but they also passed over future pro-bowler Derrius Guice in the process.
Johnson stands 5-foot-11, 213 pounds with 4.52 forty jets. Johnson does run with patience and vision, but he is not an explosive runner or someone who is going to break off multiple long runs. He’s also not particularly good in pass protection and caught 55 passes in three years, although most of those were just short passes. Perhaps I’m reading him wrong, and he’s the next Le'Veon Bell, whose style he resembles, although Bell is 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, an excellent blocker and an excellent pass catcher, so probably not.
With Riddick taking all of the passing down work and Blount the goal-line work, Johnson won’t see many of the touches that count. He needs to prove he was worth the second round selection in camp before drafting at his current ADP.
Green Bay Packers
Which receiver will step up on the outside?
With Jordy Nelson now on the Raiders, there is going to be a major camp battle for the receiving role opposite Davante Adams between Geronimo Allison, J'Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown.
Allison has the inside track to the starting role based on veteran status alone. Allison stands 6-foot-3, 203 pounds with pedestrian 4.67 forty speed. After a nondescript college career, Allison went undrafted and spent his rookie season on the Packers practice squad. He learned from the best though and showed some promise last season. Can he build on that and hold off a slew of talented rookies? Probably not for long.
J'Mon Moore was the Packers fourth-round selection this year and stands 6-foot-3, 203 pounds with 4.49 forty speed and a 78% SPARQ athlete. Noted analyst Greg Cosell believes him to be a big-time talent. He has the size, speed, and technical skills to be the starter and is currently the favorite to start outside. He's also been killing it in camp so far.
Equanimeous St. Brown stands 6-foot-5, 214 pounds with 4.48 forty speed and is a 62% SPARQ athlete. Noted wide receiver evaluator, and former Footballguy, Matt Harmon is a fan, and it’s easy to see why since he often looks like Martavis Bryant when making big plays. Unfortunately, outside of his vertical game, he usually falls flat. St. Brown could emerge, but he’s a raw talent who could easily never amount to much of anything. We see tons of guys like him filter through the league every year.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling stands 6-foot-4, 206 pounds with blazing 4.37 forty jets. As you can tell from these three rookies, the Packers went out and drafted three tall and fast players. Valdes-Scantling is also very raw as a route runner and technician, but a great deep ball threat. If he can get off the line, he’s a long strider who builds-up enough speed to usually outrun most cornerbacks. Can he be more than a one trick pony?
A few more things to pay attention to in camp is the rapport between Rodgers and newly acquired tight end, Jimmy Graham. There are even reports that Graham could get some reps outside as a receiver in three-wide sets over all of the receivers mentioned above.
Finally, it is going to be intriguing to see how the running back battle shakes out. Unfortunately, unless there is an injury, it looks to be a major running back by committee situation.
Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones will most likely be mixed and matched depending on who has the hot hand and the opponent. Jones has game-breaking speed and talent, so he’s worth betting on for the upside, while Williams has the safer weekly floor. Although that floor might not help you very much.
Ty Montgomery, on the other hand, should shuffle in and out on some passing downs in addition to playing some receiver, especially if Randal Cobb gets hurt again. However, keep in mind that the Packers love to throw in the red zone, passing on 67% of their red zone plays last year. Not to mention that Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, and Jimmy Graham are all red zone beasts, so this running back committee looks like a headache that is best avoided.
LOS ANGELES Rams
The two main things working against Watkins last season were that he joined the team from Buffalo just before the start of the season and head coach Sean McVay tried to simplify the offense a bit too much.
McVay didn’t move Watkins around the formation last year, leaving him to play on Goff’s backside as the team’s X receiver. On many plays, McVay simplified the offense to where Goff would go through his progression from front to back, looking at Robert Woods as the team's Z receiver, then to Todd Gurley out of the backfield, then to Cooper Kupp in the slot and even the team’s two tight ends before getting to his backside read and seeing Watkins. Watkins was often Goff’s 5th read.
Goff has another year under his belt now, which should help in addition to McVay seemingly realizing he needs to get his stud receivers more involved. Pay close attention to how Cooks is being lined up.
It will be fascinating to see who takes over the third receiver job between Laquon Treadwell and Kendall Wright. At this point, we know what Wright is, a solid slot player who is best used as a teams number three receiver. He finished as PFF’s 40th rated wide receiver last year, which feels about right. He’s reliable in that role, although the Vikings went three-wide on just 57% of their snaps, which is just below the league average of 59%.
Treadwell, on the other hand, was PFF’s 99th rated receiver. Treadwell was regarded by many as the best receiver coming out of college two years ago and stands 6-foot-2, 221 pounds. He tested poorly at the combine; posting a lowly 21st percent athletic SPARQ score and things just haven’t clicked for him in the NFL. He has just 21 grabs through 25 career games. Working in his favor is that he is still relatively young, with these notable receivers all being older than him: Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller V, Amari Cooper, Mike Williams, Anthony Miller, Calvin Ridley, and Corey Davis.
One quick note regarding the running backs; Dalvin Cook is a supreme talent and looks to be running well coming off of his torn ACL injury. However, Latavius Murray is a great goal-line back, and it makes a lot of sense to give him touches there, especially early on in the year. It's a note of caution on Cook’s high draft price.
New Orleans Saints
Will Cameron Meredith be ready to play?
There are not many unresolved issues on this offense beyond who will sub for Mark Ingram II the first four weeks of the season. It looks to be a competition between Jonathan Williams and Terrance West, with West the most likely winner. Beyond DFS though, neither is worth drafting.
The health of Meredith is worth watching though. He avoided the PUP list to open camp, which means he is ready to go even if they still bring him along slowly. If healthy, Meredith should ascend to the Marques Colston slot role with Ted Ginn Jr and Michael Thomas playing on the outside. Unfortunately, there is not as much value in that role as there used to be, with the Saints going three-wide on only 48% of their plays, well below the league average.
Nonetheless, when Meredith was healthy in 2016, he had 9+ catches and over 100 yards in four games, finishing the season as a part-time player with 66 catches for 888 yards and four scores. He’s a talented receiver.
New York Giants
Is Eli Manning toast?
This offense is loaded with weapons, but Eli Manning may be done. He was PFF’s 28th-rated quarterback last year, finishing the season with the 24th-ranked QBR rating. Some of his poor play had to do with the lack of weapons around him, but he’s in a major two-year slump. At least the Giants upgraded their offensive line by adding Patriots left tack Nate Solder and spending a second round pick on left guard Will Hernandez.
If Eli is not up to the challenge, second-year quarterback Davis Webb out of Berkeley could very well hold great fantasy value with all these weapons. Webb looks the part at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds with plus athleticism. Unfortunately, like Jared Goff before him, Webb ran a juvenile offense at Berkeley and was unprepared to be a starting quarterback when he entered the league last year. With a year under his belt, he has looked excellent in pre-season activities.
Another player to keep an eye on is Teddy Bridgewater who was signed by the Jets as trade bait and could easily end up on New York’s other team.
Will Carson Wentz be ready to play?
Not a whole lot to see here beyond the health of Carson Wentz. So far he is moving around okay, although they will probably ease him in and perhaps only starting him after a month into the season. With Nick Foles on the team there is no need to rush things, but if he’s healthy, he will play.
The other player to track is newly-acquired receiver, Mike Wallace. He is virtually free in most fantasy drafts right now, often going off the board in the late teen rounds. He can still fly down the field and has always been an underrated technician. Look for him to be a mainstay on the outside opposite Alshon Jeffery, even in two-wide sets.
San Francisco 49ers
Will Jerick McKinnon carry the load?
The hype on Jerick McKinnon is in full swing as he is currently being drafted in the second round of most PPR fantasy drafts. His athleticism is mouthwatering, posting an insane 100th percentile SPARQ score. It doesn’t get better than that. While McKinnon should provide reliable weekly RB2 value in PPR leagues, spending a second round pick on him does come with some potential downside.
Many view him as Kyle Shanahan’s new Devonta Freeman, however as our own Matt Waldman recently stated: “On paper, he looks like he could fill that Devonta Freeman role in San Francisco for Kyle Shanahan. On film, McKinnon lacks the same caliber of diagnostic skills, quick decision-making, and finishing power than Freeman has in Atlanta.”
The stats back up this assessment. Per PFF, McKinnon has averaged just 2.4 yards after first contact per attempt in his career, which is slightly below league-average (2.5) and below Carlos Hyde (2.8) last year. Also, 34.8% of McKinnon's carries have gained 5+ yards, which is right at the league average. He also received horrible grades as a runner in all of Football Outsider’s advanced metrics, finishing 40th in DYAR and DVOA.
It’s also worth noting, per ESPN’s Mike Clay, that McKinnon has never eclipsed 159 carries in a season and is averaging 3.59 yards-per-carry (worst at the position) and 1.5 yards after the catch (second worst) over the past two years.
The X factor is Shanahan and his ability to get backs into space and create space with his running scheme. This is why McKinnon, if he can stay healthy, should be able to catch at least 70+ passes in this offense and return high-end RB2 value in PPR leagues at worst. Regardless though, McKinnon is not going to be used as a three-down feature back all year. My guess is that he has a huge Week 1 and then we see a steady decline.
The battle to compliment McKinnon will be waged between second-year players Matt Breida and Joe Williams. Williams was Shanahan’s hand-picked starter last year but flopped miserably before being put on injured reserve. Can he get it together in year two?
Breida, on the other hand, played very well in limited action and is an athletic freak in his own right, posting an 88th percentile SPARQ score. In 16 games last season, Breida averaged 4.43 yards-per-carry and caught 21 passes. Williams, as the bigger back, looks like the better compliment, but Breida won’t go down quietly.
How will this running back core shake out?
Right now it is a two-way battle for lead duties between second-year player Chris Carson and 2018 first round pick Rashaad Penny. While it makes sense that the Seahawks would start their first-round selection from this year, it’s not a given at this point.
Before breaking his ankle in Week 4 of last season, Carson looked like a future stud, averaging 4.2 yards-per-carry and catching 7 of 8 passes. Carson also looks the part, standing 6-foot-0, 218 pounds with 4.58 forty speed as a 76th percentile SPARQ athlete. He entered camp as the team’s starter and has been drawing daily praise from head coach Pete Caroll.
Penny, on the other hand, stands 5-foot-11, 220 pounds with 4.46 forty speed. He’s a Carlos Hyde type runner who is a truckload to bring down, but maybe not even as talented as Hyde. In fact, Penny spent two seasons stuck behind Donnel Pumphrey in college, which might be telling.
On the outside looking in is C.J. Prosise, another running back that has had a problem staying healthy. He’s big (6'1”, 220 pounds), fast (4.48 forty) and showed very well in his limited action so far. A converted running back, he is still learning the subtler points of the position but has looked great whenever he has been able to stay on the field. It’s possible he works as the team’s pass-catching back this season.
As usual, the biggest roadblock this teams running game is the Seahawks atrocious offensive line. Even though PFF still has this line ranked near the botoom of the league, at least they aren’t ranked dead last again. Fortunately, Russell Wilson’s blindside should be protected with stud left tackle Duane Brown on the team. They also have decent center play with Justin Britt. The right side of the line is the real question mark; they need D.J. Fluker and Germain Ifedi to step up.
One more player to watch for is receiver Brandon Marshall. He looked horrible last season, but so did the whole Giants offense. He’s a gym rat, so if he can get healthy from off-season surgery, he has a chance to make the team. In fact, they really would love for him to. If so, he could step into Jimmy Graham's redzone role, who saw 20 and 27 targets respectively the past two seasons in that area of the field.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Who will be the teams starting running back?
There is a logjam at receiver between all of their great wide receivers and tight ends. In reality, they will likely cannibalize each other unless there is an injury. Buyer beware.
Rookie Ronald Jones II will likely get the first crack at leading this backfield, but he’s no sure thing. He stands 5-foot-11, 205 pounds with around 4.5 forty speed. Some have compared him to Jamaal Charles others to Tevin Coleman. His tape was a mixed bag, he has excellent burst at times, but often needed a defined crease, or he would run right into the pile. At least he is not a Marlon Mack type of bouncer, but he’s not great at creating his own lanes either. The good thing with Jones is that he has an aggressive mentality and runs with no fear, but can he stand up to the pounding? He’s also not a proven pass protector.
Barber, on the other hand, was somewhat of a revelation last season and showed that he could carry the load on early downs. He stands 5-foot-10, 228 pounds. At the Combine, Barber ran a paltry 4.62 forty, but he says he is in better shape now and is running the forty in 4.5 seconds. He will push Jones hard if nothing else and has an outside chance to be the team’s lead back.
Who will be the team’s go-to receiver?
Darrius Guice is the team’s lead running back. Understand that. Believe that. Chris Thompson will play on passing downs, but not all of them, as Guice is an underrated pass catcher. Guise could easily catch 32+ passes this season, which is just two a game.
With new quarterback Alex Smith in town, it’s going to be interesting to see who becomes his go-to guy. Jordan Reed is a vacuum whenever he plays, so it all comes down to availability. He had off-season toe surgery but was on the field for the start of camp this week. Just keep in mind he also has a terrible concussion history.
Newly-acquired receiver Paul Richardson Jr should act as the team’s deep threat, but there is more to him then meets the eye. He is a former second-round draft pick whose early career was hampered by an ACL injury and then subsequent hamstring issues. He looked pretty good last season and could surprise this year, although he is probably going to end up being a better standard league and DFS play than a PPR one. He will play the Z-receiver role. Pay close attention to him.
Josh Doctson will man the X receiver role. He stands 6-foot-2, 202 pounds with 4.5 forty speed, a monster 41" vertical jump, and 10'11" broad jump. Things haven’t quite come together for Docston yet, but at his best, he has some Allen Robinson in him, as a dominant contested catch in air leaper. It’s a make or break year for him.
The most likely player to lead the team in targets is slot man Jamison Crowder. After dealing with hamstring injuries that hampered the early part of his 2017 season, Crowder finally got things going in the second half, coming in as fantasy’s WR16 over that stretch. He had six top-36 weeks including five games as a top-24 receiver. Early reports have been positive and that Crowder and Smith displayed an excellent rapport. Crowder is also an underrated red zone threat. There is a lot to like here.
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