We're nearly a month into the season. Let's examine some slow starters who will finish strong, preseason calls that appear wrong, the Seattle running back situation, and Deshaun Watson.
Matt Waldman: Deshaun Watson is a top-5 fantasy quarterback after two starts. During those two starts, he's faced a pair of generous pass defenses. Please answer the following questions:
- Why (or why not) is he a bona fide fantasy starter in 12-team leagues for the rest of the year?
- Other than DeAndre Hopkins, which receiver/tight end benefits most in the Texans passing game from Watson replacing Tom Savage?
- If you said he's not a bona fide fantasy starter, what should fantasy owners keep an eye on as a future sign that he's made that leap? If you said he is a bona fide starter, what should fantasy owners look for as signs that his stock is about to nosedive?
Last year, in a pretty basic scoring system with 4 point touchdowns and 1 point per 20 passing yards, Aaron Rodgers averaged 27 points per game, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan averaged 25 points per game, Tom Brady averaged 24, Andrew Luck averaged 23, Kirk Cousins averaged 22, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 21... and then 11 guys played at least 15 games and averaged approximately 20-21 points per game.
There's really no reason to believe Deshaun Watson won't be in that QB8-18 range going forward, which means whether he's closer to 8th or closer to 18th, he's a fine starter. The rushing production really helps out, because rushing yards are at least twice as valuable as passing yards in fantasy.
Is he going to remain a top-tier difference maker at quarterback going forward? There the evidence is much less compelling. Watson has a lot of signs pointing to regression. He has seven passing touchdowns for just 811 yards, a ratio of about 115 yards per touchdown; last year the league average was 157 and only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady were below 130.
Watson is a solid running threat, but he's had 19 carries and one of them happened to be a 49-yard touchdown run, the longest by a quarterback in the last two years. Over a small sample, that play weighs disproportionately on stats to date. And then, in general, there's just the principle that player's per-game stats are always inflated coming off a huge game.
So I guess this is just a long way of saying I wouldn't have any problems starting him the rest of the way, but I wouldn't be expecting more of the same going forward.
More than anything though, the Texans look to be having FUN. Watson is spreading the ball out and getting everyone involved, and we saw last week what happens when defenses are forced to drop back in coverage and allow Lamar Miller some breathing room. He was able to get to the edge much easier, and there is not a player on the offensive side of the ball who's stock dropped with Watson taking over for Savage.
(This is assuming that you buy into the idea that Watson has tunnel vision for Hopkins, which... I mean, small sample sizes. I'm not exactly chiseling that in stone.)
Waldman: Who replaces Chris Carson in Seattle as the Seahawk runner to own? Or, is Seattle a committee and does it mean there are multiple backs to own? Or, it will be too unpredictable to invest in anyone?
Harstad: I like Thomas Rawls, to be honest, and thought the fact that he was a healthy scratch last week was a bit weird. I always figured it'd be his job eventually in Seattle. Prosise and McKissic are both more scat-back / change-of-pace types who I wouldn't be interested in really bothering with outside of maybe best ball PPR leagues. Eddie Lacy... I just don't think is that good anymore. Hope he proves me wrong.
Waldman: I too have concerns about how the team may regard Rawls. However, I have two theories about Rawls as a healthy scratch that are positive considerations about him. First, it's possible he was healthy enough not to be on the injury report, but it seemed worthwhile to the team to give him one more week to get fully healthy, especially with Carson playing so well. Second, Prosise wasn't healthy and McKissic fits that hybrid, scatback/wide receiver role better than Rawls. Plus, teammates have been lobbying the Seahawks staff to give McKissic playing time due to his outstanding performances in practice.
Simpkins: The Seattle rushing situation is just too much of a mess to really feel great about any of the options. The usage of Seattle’s offensive personnel varies so much from week-to-week that you really can’t count on anyone but Russell Wilson to consistently produce for your team. If forced to take one of Rawls, Lacy, or Prosise going forward, I think Lacy is the play. He came in and finished off the game when Carson went down and looked competent doing so. I think he’s also got the best frame to hold up to the punishment he’ll take behind a not very good offensive line.
Waldman: It is notable that the Seahawks ground game had the best ground production of any team against the Colts defense this season, a strong unit that allowed no more than 77 yards to a backfield during the first three weeks. Seattle earned 132 yards with Carson, McKissic, and Lacy. Chris Collinsworth believes that if Rees Odhiambo improves, this line will take a strong leap forward. I agree from the standpoint of pass protection, but for me, the guards and the center have a much greater impact on the running game and they looked better this weekend. We'll see if they can sustain a level of steady improvement.
Holloway: A running back by committee scenario is almost a certainty going forward for the Seahawks. Neither Eddie Lacy nor Thomas Rawls has been targeted a single time in limited playing time. Prosise has more targets than receptions to date and he is working through an ankle injury. McKissic was surprisingly involved in the offense in week four and scored two touchdowns. For dynasty, you could take a dart throw at McKissic, but nobody stands out as the obvious replacement for Carson, who himself was a surprise as the top running back.
Howe: This is such a crowded – and uninspiring – committee that I won’t be putting anything of value into acquiring it. I see no strong trade targets, as both Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls probably carry enough name recognition and perceived upside requiring a market value to land them. And neither is worth market value. Both are one-dimensional guys with exceptionally low floors, and the past mystique of the Marshawn Lynch-led Seahawks lingering in the minds of fantasy owners, their ceilings aren’t great with both healthy. There may be some value in floating offers for C.J. Prosise, who (when healthy) has the backfield’s only predictable role, but it’s a relatively low-ceiling one that I wouldn’t chase.
VanderWoude: It is very hard to pick one running back on the Seahawks for investment, at least at this current juncture, because we have not seen extensive duty from either Thomas Rawls or Eddie Lacy. Lacy has always been a guy who needed to have a big workload to make a difference, as he got stronger as the game went on and was able to wear down defenses. Unless Pete Carroll suddenly decides to give him 15+ carries a game, Lacy will not be fantasy relevant.
Thomas Rawls is the obvious answer, but he's only seen a total of five carries, and they all came in week 2. When healthy, he is a dynamic runner who can put up big games and be a low #2 or high #3 running back on fantasy teams. Until we see a full game's worth of carries for Rawls, it is very difficult to trust him as anything more than a very deep flier.
The most intriguing option to me is McKissic. All he did was score on his first carry as a Seahawk last week, and then back that up with a very nice catch on a wheel route deep in the 4th quarter. It was McKissic's two scores that really broke the game open for the Seahawks and it was plain to see how much more explosive the offense became when they had a running back who was capable of creating big plays as both a runner and a receiver. McKissic was a utility player in college operating as a runner/receiver/returner, but he was mostly used as a receiver. While he is not as big as Ty Montgomery, I think there are similarities between the two, and if the Seahawks use him like the Packers used Montgomery in 2016, McKissic will be the best option at running back in Seattle.
Slow Starts, STrong Finishes
Waldman: Give me a quarterback outside the top 15, a running back outside the top 36, a wide receiver outside the top 48, and tight end outside the top 15 who will finish the year as no worse than a QB1, RB2, WR2, and TE1, respectively. BJ, lead off with your tight end.
VanderWoude: I see Kyle Rudolph improving on his slow start to the season and finishing the year as a No. 1 tight end. In 2016, Rudolph had only four games with less than four receptions, and he scored touchdowns in seven of his 16 starts. Sam Bradford's injury has hurt Rudolph's production, but once he returns from injury (which should be in the next week or two) Rudolph's production will increase drastically, as the injury to Dalvin Cook will expand Rudolph's role in the short and intermediate passing game.
Howe: I expect Jack Doyle’s value to climb as the season progresses. He’s drawing solid volume – a team share, on pace for roughly 70 targets – even in the Colts’ Andrew Luck-less offense. That makes him a dependable TE1/2 borderline guy at the moment, and one with realistic touchdown potential once Luck returns. Dating back to his Stanford days, Luck has targeted his tight ends near the goal line like almost no other quarterback on earth.
Holloway: Jimmy Graham started slowly with only four catches on 9 targets over the first two weeks, but similar to the Seattle offense, his production has climbed the past two weeks. The Seahawks may be shifting more to a passing-focused offense and Graham will benefit.
Simpkins: Martellus Bennett is sitting just outside the top fifteen tight ends and has been a disappointment so far. Yet, I don’t think we should give up on him just yet. Rodgers hasn’t needed to lean on Bennett heavily yet, but there will come a point at which teams watch the film, make adjustments to stop Nelson, and force Rodgers to go elsewhere with the ball. Positive regression is coming.
Harstad: Both Kyle Rudolph and Jimmy Graham would be solid choices here. Rudolph has been slightly more productive to this point, but I'll take Graham. He was drafted higher (TE5 vs. TE7), and he ranks 6th among tight ends in targets with 27, (Rudolph ranks 20th with 15). The volume is there, the past history is there, his offense is fine, and he's trending up, he's just held back so far because he only had nine yards in the first two games. (Graham is 3rd in receptions and 5th in receiving yards among tight ends over the past two weeks.)
Waldman: Adam, begin the rounds on wide receivers.
Harstad: I hate hitching my wagon to this many Raiders, but Amari Cooper is the slam-dunk pick at this position. Cooper ranks 19th in targets but 114th in receiving yards, which is stupid and a giant, flashing, neon sign screaming "REGRESSION" into the night. I don't care what you think about him or his drops, I don't care of Carr is missing time, Cooper is averaging a 38.7% catch rate and 3.55 yards per target, and that's just stupid. Even Greg Little, the poster-child cautionary tale for drops, averaged 50% and 5.83 for his career. Only Dez Bryant has more targets inside the 10-yard line. The volume is there. The lack of production is a fluke.
Simpkins: Cooper is outside of the top 48 currently, and I think he’ll end up returning wide receiver two value ultimately. I’ve decided to pick more of a longshot to make this a more fun exercise. JuJu Smith-Schuster is someone I’m very high on for dynasty purposes that seems to be doing more with his early opportunities than I could have hoped initially. He’s already passed Eli Rodgers on the depth chart, which is impressive for a 20-year-old player. He’s showing his prowess working over the middle of the field and flowing to the ball when it is in the air. He won’t get a lot of separation, but he doesn’t need it because he’s very good at making contested catches. His playing style is very reminiscent of Anquan Boldin. Ben Roethlisberger’s skills may be diminishing, but he’ll appreciate having that security blanket. Smith-Schuster could very well defy expectations and become a solid starter for folks if he continues converting on his increasing opportunity.
Holloway: Climbing up from outside the top 48 wide receivers to the top 24 seems like an extreme challenge, but Kelvin Benjamin could pull that off, particularly if Greg Olsen is slower to return. Benjamin has started slowly and not yet scored a touchdown. He could climb quickly with improved play by Cam Newton and scoring touchdowns like he has in his two previous NFL seasons.
Howe: As Stephen pointed out, Kelvin Benjamin looks the most certain to make the climb. In fact, I’d just about stake my life on it. Going deeper, I’ll throw my Will Fuller V hat into the ring. Fuller should sit solidly behind only DeAndre Hopkins for DeShaun Watson’s attention, and he brings such explosive upside to the table that a WR3 finish going forward wouldn’t surprise me a bit. His two Week 5 touchdowns weren’t especially fluky: Fuller is Brandin Cooks-fast and found the end zone at an absurd rate at Notre Dame. In Houston, he’s utilized on the deep ball as well as underneath, and a trie touchdown threat on virtually every target.
VanderWoude: The easy answer at wide receiver is Cooper, but I'll take a deeper shot and go with Martavis Bryant. Not a week goes by that we do not see Bryant streaking past the opposing secondary wide open down the field. In year's past, Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger were able to connect on these plays, but it is obvious that a year away from football has hurt his ability to fine tune his connection with Roethlisberger. With each passing game, their connection should become tighter and now that Le'Veon Bell is getting back on track, there should be more play-action opportunities for Bryant down the field. Once those plays start coming, Bryant becomes a surefire No. 2 wide receiver. He has the pure talent and elite ball skills to be a top-12 receiver.
Waldman: Justin, who is your running back that fits this question?
Howe: Joe Mixon is sitting around the RB3 borderline, depending on league scoring, and he looks ready to soar (somewhat). New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor clearly wants him spearheading the backfield, which relegates Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to complementary roles. Mixon won’t dominate the backfield, and he’ll lose attention in a few key situations, but he’ll almost certainly lead the way in snaps and overall touches. Given his electrifying athleticism and dynamic open-field ability, that should be plenty of volume to produce RB2 numbers.
VanderWoude: Derrick Henry is currently ranked right around running back No. 45, and his backfield mate, DeMarco Murray is ranked as running back No. 32. So much for the "Exotic-Smashmouth" run-heavy philosophy of a year ago for the Titans. With Marcus Mariota nursing a hamstring injury that has him listed as day-to=day, Henry's role in the offense is about to expand. Especially when you consider the performance of Matt Cassell last week, who managed to turn the ball over three times in three minutes, including one interception that went for a touchdown. Murray has not looked like the dominant player of year's past, and Henry is entering his prime. When given the chance, Henry has played exceptionally well, averaging 4.6 ypc in 2016, and 4.5 ypc through four games this year. As long as Henry gets a bigger workload, he'll take advantage of his opportunity and be a dependable RB2.
Holloway: Both Mixon and Wendell Smallwood are currently ranked outside the top 36 running backs and should have more opportunities going forward than they have had to date this season. Smallwood is an excellent fit for the Sproles’ role and also can be a decent run between the tackles back.
Simpkins: Marshawn Lynch is currently the 43rd running back in PPR formats, but I see him finishing the year within the top 24. The lack of usage early on has likely been to preserve his body for when he is most needed. Not only will the offense need to lean on their runners more with E.J. Manuel at the helm over the next few weeks, but I also believe we will see Lynch’s usage pick up in the second half of the season as the team does its best to push back into the playoffs.
Harstad: Jay Ajayi would be the Cheaty McCheaterton choice here since he's only played three games, but he's top-36 on a per-game basis and therefore against the spirit of the question. Technically the highest-drafted RB currently sitting outside the top 36 is Isaiah Crowell, taken as the 14th back off the board, but his snaps are trending down. Marshawn Lynch was drafted 15th, has produced more and isn't really losing his role. So Lynch is my pick.
Lynch has a big enough share of the workload, seems secure in his role, is going to be the clear go-to guy at the goal line (especially when the team stops this ill-fated "Amari Cooper, Goal-to-Go Weapon" experiment), and won't be playing Denver every week going forward.
Waldman: Let's finish up with a quarterback. Stephen?
Holloway: Cam Newton currently ranks as QB17 and although he will not be playing New England again, he seems an obvious candidate to finish among the top 12 quarterbacks.
Harstad: Matt Ryan. Last year's MVP was the 4th quarterback taken, on average, this preseason. Through four weeks he's QB18. Atlanta's offense is actually leading the NFL in yards per drive and points per drive for the second straight season, the big difference is that last year Atlanta averaged two passing touchdowns for every rushing touchdown and this year the ratio is 1:1. Expect the touchdowns to rebound and Ryan's fantasy points to rebound with them.
Howe: I think the best is yet to come for Matt Ryan, for the reasons Adam outlined. This isn’t quite the high-flying 2016 offense, but it’s still producing yardage and touchdown opportunity at an elite pace. We’ve yet to see Julio Jones find the end zone – it’s not his forte, but it’ll happen at some point – or an Austin Hooper touchdown eruption, so we can assume confidently that there are big weeks coming.
Simpkins: Jameis Winston is currently outside the top 15, in part because he’s only played 3 games. I’m a fan of all the weapons they added throughout the offseason and think the Buccaneers have the potential to have an explosive offense. Doug Martin coming back to make the run game a legitimate threat should only serve to improve Winston’s outlook.
VanderWoude: Currently, Philip Rivers is the No. 16 quarterback, but I have confidence that he will break inside the top 10 by year's end. Over the last four years, Rivers has never finished outside the top 10 (6th, 10th, 9th, 6th) in fantasy scoring, and he has never finished outside the top 10 in passing attempts (10th, 1st, 9th, 6th). His ranking has more to do with a zero touchdown, three-interception game in week three, but other than that he has exceeded 18 fantasy points in his other 3 starts.
Where we went wrong/Right
Waldman: Who is a player you were wrong about thus far? Who was a player you were right about? Were you positive or negative about each and what are the most compelling reasons why these players are defying your expectations?
Harstad: This is a hard one because I don't really stick my neck out on players. Typically I'm content to just sit back and grab whoever falls.
I did think Eric Ebron would be a lot better than he's been so far. He was drafted with the 10th pick of the 2014 draft, which is an incredible amount of capital to spend on a TE. Tight ends taken that high basically don't bust. Ebron increased his yards-per-game average year by year from 19.1 to 38.4 to 54.7. Detroit had a stable quarterback situation and a so-so receiving corps.
I figured, barring injury, Ebron was for sure in for a top-10 fantasy season at tight end. Instead, the team keeps reducing his snaps week by week. They're just not using him. I don't really blame the Lions because Ebron hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire when he's been on the field. I just figured he was a solid player on the upswing with a stable role, and it seems that none of those three things are turning out to be true.
As for who I was right on... looking at my teams, I seem to have a really curiously large percentage of Adam Thielen shares, (somehow he wound up on 2/3s of my teams), but I didn't even realize that until just now so I don't think he counts.
I will say, it's way too early in the year for me to feel comfortable spiking this particular football yet, but I was all over the "there's something fishy about this Andrew Luck thing" way before consensus caught on, and I was also big on his fellow class of 2012 alum Russell Wilson.
Wilson never gets the love Luck gets, but the guy is one of the most stone-cold consistent quarterbacks out there. Great situation, terrible situation, whatever, Wilson's legs always give him a solid floor and his arm always gives him a solid ceiling.
Currently, Wilson finds himself positioned as a top-3 fantasy quarterback. Which to my mind is completely unsurprising, given that he was a top-3 fantasy quarterback in 2014. And also in 2015. And he was slowed by injuries early, but he was a top-3 fantasy quarterback over the second half of 2016, too.
Simpkins: I decided to go dig up my picks from our Undervalued/Overvalued/Deep Sleepers columns to answer this question. The player I feel I was the wrong about the most was Danny Woodhead. While I feel the role the Ravens were going to put him in would have been great for his production, I failed to take his injury history, age, and preseason hamstring problems as seriously as I should have. I feel upset at myself for guiding fantasy owners down that path, but know that I went down the road with you. I acquired Woodhead in many of my leagues and have had to scramble to find passable production while I wait for his return.