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This week we discuss the following:
Understanding that a top-12 finish for any of them may be unlikely, who has the best chance?
Jason Wood: C.J. Spiller has already been a top 12 fantasy running back—finishing seventh in 2012. He's healthy again and gets a new lease on life in New Orleans. Unless you think Drew Brees is going to fall off a cliff this year (and I don't), it's hard to imagine Spiller catching less than 60 receptions and 500+ receiving yards. What we don't know is whether Spiller will be relegated to minimal rushing duties—thanks to Mark Ingram II—or if the team plans on using Spiller as the main runner every third drive while also acting as the main third-down and receiving back. I like Spiller a lot, but he is in a committee on a new team that showed signs of decline last year.
Beyond Spiller, the guy I'm most excited about on this list is T.J. Yeldon. The Jaguars offensive line is underappreciated, and Julius Thomas is going to help out in space. Yeldon has all the tools required to be a three-down workhorse, and the coaches have said all the right things about giving Yeldon an opportunity to be the main back. In today's NFL it's so rare to find a runner who doesn't have to share a major percentage of the offensive workload; Yeldon is one of those rare exceptions.
Justin Howe: Absolutely, Jason. Yeldon is one of the difficult types to evaluate coming in: his athletic numbers were very mediocre, but he's just so much quicker in action. He has a special movement ability in the open field, very instinctive and quick to process contact. He wasn't much of a workhorse in school, but he'll be one out of the gates in Jacksonville. Denard Robinson is much better suited as a change-of-pace back—he's a light guy who doesn't create much after contact—and Toby Gerhart will reportedly serve in more of a fullback's role this year. Neither has Yeldon's three-down skillset. Of course, you worry about game script and volume when you invest in a Jaguar, but Robinson and Gerhart managed to post seven games of 15+ touches in 2014 while dealing with injuries. It would be a surprise to see Yeldon fail to gobble up at least half the team's rushes and adequate receiving opportunity for a solid fantasy RB2—and that may be his floor. He could very easily dominate the backfield outright and threaten RB1 volume.
Daniel Simpkins: I'll pile on to the T.J. Yeldon bandwagon that Wood and Howe are driving. Justin, I really believe you are right about him being a three-down runner early on and dominating the touches in that backfield by a significant margin. Additionally, he's in an offense that's on the rise. Allen Robinson and Julius Thomas are really going to open up that passing game, which will in turn give Yeldon a little more breathing room. He has a legitimate chance at churning out a thousand yards on the ground. He's also a very underrated pass catcher, so he could really exceed expectations in that category as well. Yeldon is going in the middle of the fourth round in twelve-team drafts. Some other backs going in that range that I would rather have Yeldon over: Alfred Morris, Jonathan Stewart, Carlos Hyde, Todd Gurley, and Latavius Murray.
Matt Waldman: My answer is Yeldon. If I'm right about Yeldon, we'll see that he was the most under-appreciated of the big-name backs in this excellent rookie class. I've used Yeldon's footwork, vision, and finishing technique as teaching points with a few people who have asked me to watch film with them about running backs. I've often contrasted it with Tevin Coleman, who is an exciting back with great big-play ability, but has to improve his carry-to-carry efficiency.
A lot of people think that Yeldon may be decent but unexciting. While I agree to an extent, I think there is viable upside for him as a receiver and red-zone option that could put him in the top 15 at the position this year.
Is being a red-zone option in Jacksonville all that meaningful?
Matt Waldman: I think it is. I see double-digit touchdowns as a viable possibility for Yeldon because of the improvements I anticipate for both the quarterback and the receiving corps. When Greg Cosell was on the Ross Tucker Podcast recently, he made a good point that I think fantasy owners often overlook or never considered about passing games: Quarterback play, good and bad, is often largely a function of how well receivers run routes and finish plays. Let's remember that at the same time Blake Bortles was a rookie, so was his entire receiving corps outside of the off-injured Cecil Shorts. Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Marqise Lee were significant players in this offense. That's a lot of inconsistency happening on the field at the same time.
What Cosell didn't mention, but is an even bigger factor for the offense's struggles—especially the passing game—was offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. This former OC of the Miami Hurricanes runs one of the most complex systems around. He's a massively intelligent coach, but his weakness has been his intractable desire to maintain a system that I've been told is hard for even long-term veteran quarterbacks to learn.
It's one of the biggest reasons Fisch is no longer in Jacksonville. Bortles and his receivers will benefit from a simpler system and full offseason devoted to getting better rather than getting drafted, getting relocated, and acclimating to a new team, new offense, and new league. It means the passing game should become more efficient and I expect the benefit for the running game is more red-zone opportunities, more balance, and more situations where running the ball will be optimal.
I love what Denard Robinson was able to do last year. He made the transition from quarterback to running back and exhibited mature decision-making. While he did the right things on traditional running plays, his best work came when the Jaguars manufactured a lot of runs for Robinson with gadget plays designed specifically for him. Jacksonville wont' need to do that with Yeldon.
What do you make of the fact that Yeldon split time with Derrick Henry last year at Alabama?
Matt Waldman: There's a mistaken idea that it's a sign that Yeldon didn't get better every year he was with the Crimson Tide. Let's remember that a program like Alabama sells itself to top recruits with the great track record it has with sending its guys to the NFL and offering playing time.
It means you have to platoon Mark Ingram II with Trent Richardson, Richardson with Eddie Lacy, Lacy with Yeldon, and Yeldon with Henry. The Miami Hurricanes did the same thing with Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Najeh Davenport, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore.
Yeldon isn't a special back athletically like Todd Gurley or dynamic as a big-play threat like Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon III. He is consistent, smart, strong, and versatile. Possibly Alfred Morris with more burst and better hands.
Chad Parsons: T.J. Yeldon is my favorite running back value in 2015. There is essentially no competition for touches in Jacksonville. Yeldon was a rock-solid running back prospect with above-average athleticism, ideal size, and high marks in rushing and receiving scores. After his top recruit status entering college and promising early seasons, Yeldon's stock was beaten down by a ho-hum final year at Alabama. After Jacksonville made Yeldon the third running back off the board in the early second round, fantasy owners (especially in dynasty) started coming around on Yeldon once again. Early reports have been positive for Yeldon and mid-RB2 production is Yeldon's realistic floor as a rookie.
That said, I'm ultimately going to agree with Jason: when handicapping this group, C.J. Spiller would be my top choice. The Saints have used running backs heavily in the passing game under Sean Payton and no one is set to challenge Spiller for a high dose of targets a la Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in former offensive iterations. I would be surprised if Spiller did not corral at least 60-65 receptions with rushing upside of 8-10 carries a game. I expect Spiller and Brandon Cooks to be the feature elements of the Saints offense as Mark Ingram II and Khiry Robinson are more 'hammer' elements between the tackles.
Andy Hicks: T.J. Yeldon is expected to be a major contributor on offense in Jacksonville, but the Jaguars do have other options, as Matt alluded to. They don't have to make Yeldon the bell cow immediately if they don't trust him to carry the load immediately.
Latavius Murray had a monster four-touch game against the Chiefs, but outside of that wasn't terribly impressive. His final four games indicated he will be a fantasy RB2 this season at best. Maybe an improved Raiders team helps Murray elevate his game, but he first has to stay healthy, show further improvement, and get into the end zone on a regular basis. That's a lot to ask. I feel his chances to be a fantasy RB1 are not as high as others listed here.
Carlos Hyde saw just as many carries as Latavius Murray, and could show improvement in his second year in the pros. While I think it's a stretch to think Hyde becomes top 12, especially with the offseason the 49ers have had, he has the opportunity. If San Francisco is able to unite as a team under Jim Tomsula quickly and the defense is at all reliable then his chances go up.
Buffalo seems to draft running backs in the first round and then let them move onto other teams and watch them exceed their Bills experience. Joining Marshawn Lynch and Willis McGahee this year will be C.J Spiller. As Jason mentioned, Spiller has already been a top 12 back before Doug Marrone came on board in Buffalo and let a highly skilled player essentially be underused. Spiller's skill set seems to suit New Orleans perfectly. With Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas leaving the Saints in recent years, Spiller is a good mix of the two, but a much more explosive runner. I would expect Mark Ingram II to see more carries, but feel it will much closer than most expect. Add in his receiving ability and the only thing stopping him will be touchdowns. He was an infrequent visitor to the end zone in his first five seasons, so I don't think he can do it this year, but he has the upside to make it if he can get 10 touchdowns. He's my favorite of the group.
Phil Alexander: Carlos Hyde and Latavius Murray are two-down backs tied to potentially bad teams. Personally, I'd be surprised to see either finish inside the top 20 fantasy running backs. If I had to own a piece of the San Francisco or Oakland backfields, I'd rather take Reggie Bush in the 10th round, or Roy Helu in the 13th than pay Hyde or Murray's fourth-round asking price. When the game scripts go bad for the 49ers or Raiders, as I expect they often will this season, each team's respective passing-down back will gain opportunity at the expense of the nominal starter.
The choice for me comes down to Yeldon or Spiller, and while Spiller certainly has more competition for touches in New Orleans, I'm taking him over Yeldon with zero hesitation.
My concern with Yeldon is that he's hitched to a Blake Bortles offense. Matt Waldman makes a compelling case for why we should expect progress from Bortles this season, but I'm not buying in until we see indications that Jacksonville's offensive line can do a better job of protecting him this season.
Last year, Bortles was sacked on a league high 28.9% of the plays in which the defense registered pressure. His completion percentage on those plays was a league-low 36.4%, and his eight interceptions thrown while under pressure tied for second most in the league. Due in large part to Bortles' inability to handle collapsing pockets, Jacksonville's average scoring margin was -10.2 points per game, which made it impossible for them to stick with the run through entire games.
Justin Howe made a good point about Denard Robinson and Toby Gerhart combining for seven 15+ touch games despite their battle against negative game scripts; but the quality of those touches has to be considered. The Jaguars averaged only two trips to the red zone per game last season (31st). Robinson and Gerhart combined for just eight rushes from inside the opposing team's five yard line.
Do you agree with Jason that the Jaguars' offensive line is underrated?
Phil Alexander: I'm not sure I do. Football Outsiders ranked the unit 30th in their adjusted line yards metric last year, and dead last in pass protection. Our own Matt Bitonti currently has them ranked as a bottom tier group (22nd overall) headed into this season. Former Dallas right tackle Jeremy Parnell was a big free agent signing, but he's not exactly proven, with just seven starts over five NFL seasons. Their other free agent acquisition, center Stefen Wisniewski, is recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. It's still unclear how much third round rookie guard A.J. Cann will be asked to contribute this season. And Luke Joeckel—the second overall pick in the 2013 draft—needs to prove he's not a colossal bust after grading as PFF's 67th ranked offensive tackle (out of a possible 84) in 2014.
It's not that I don't trust Yeldon's skill-set, or role in the offense. It's just that both Bortles and the offensive line have a lot of improving to do before Jacksonville's offense is fertile enough to support anything more than a mid-to-low-end RB2.
Spiller is a back with a historically efficient NFL season under his belt, and who was criminally misused the last two seasons by former Bills' coach Doug Marrone. He enters an offense that has produced six 70+ reception running back seasons since 2006. Not to mention, the Saints have a 314 target void to fill from last year thanks to the departures of Pierre Thomas, Travaris Cadet, Kenny Stills, and Jimmy Graham. I agree with Jason—60 receptions and 500 receiving yards are Spiller's floor if he can play a full 16 games. And if he shows he's still the player he was in 2012, his ceiling with the Saints (who play 12 out of 16 games on turf this year as Sigmund Bloom keeps reminding us) can't be rivaled by many backs in the league, let alone those tied to questionable offenses like Hyde, Murray, and Yeldon.
Justin Howe: Andy is right about rookie over-enthusiasm. And Yeldon is a prime candidate for that, for the reason Phil laid out: that's unlikely to be an offense capable of supporting a fantasy RB1. But with rookies, the first thing we generally look at is volume, and that's the reason for optimism about Yeldon. There's a gulf between holding out reasonable hope for a top-12 season and projecting one, which I doubt any of us would truly do anytime soon.
Jeff Pasquino: While everyone is backing Yeldon, and I can understand that, why is no one considering Murray as a reasonable choice?
He's ranked by the staff anywhere from 18 to 33—so a Top 12 finish is not that outlandish at all. Murray had a great finish to the season last year (68-258 rushing, 11-108 receiving in the last four games) after a 100+ yard, two touchdown game against Kansas City. So what's the hesitancy? I have to say it is either the fact that he didn't score in those final four games or that he's in Oakland. If you believe, however, that Amari Cooper can open up the offense, Murray may have space to run again this year. I could see a 1,000-total yard season with a possible 10 touchdown year in 2015. Top 12 is not unreasonable at all.
James Brimacombe: I am all in on T.J. Yeldon this season as the running back you can grab at the best ADP that has potential to give you a huge return as a top 12 running back by seasons end. The Jaguars offense as a whole is slowly shifting into shape with the drafting of Blake Bortles last season and young wide receivers in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee and Rashad Greene Sr. Also add in the big ticket free agent signee in Julius Thomas at the tight end position and you see a very nice core of young talent in the passing game.
All those positives in the passing game open up the possibilities and opportunities in the Jaguars running game where you can almost immediately just insert T.J. Yeldon. At first glance it feels like a sizable gamble to place on Yeldon as anything more than a very low end RB2 or high upside RB3 just because of the Jaguars track record at the position over the past few seasons. The Jaguars went all in with Yeldon as they drafted him in early in the second round, which is a sign of the confidence the team has in him. It is not very often in a pass happy NFL league that you see a team invest in a fantasy running back so early in the Draft and selecting Yeldon as the 36th overall pick is a sure vote of confidence.
With Denard Robinson, Toby Gerhart, Storm Johnson and Bernard Pierce also in the Jaguars running back depth chart it looks apparent that Yeldon will win the starting running back job early in the process and see a sizable number of touches right from the get go. In three seasons at Alabama, Yeldon rushed for 3,322 yards and added 37 touchdowns, although at first glance that looks to be a fair number of touches it really is not for an Alabama fantasy running back and he should be ready to start his NFL career with a bang.
Ryan Tannehill gets a whole new slew of receivers this season. Only Jarvis Landry returns from last season (unless you count Rishard Matthews), and will reprise his role in the slot. Kenny Stills (New Orleans), Greg Jennings (Minnesota), and first-rounder DeVante Parker (Louisville) are new faces on the outside, and Jordan Cameron (Cleveland) is an upgrade at tight end.
What is Tannehill's upside in this offense?
Jason Wood: Ryan Tannehill was a top 10 fantasy quarterback last year and remains an ascendant player. Let's not forget the Dolphins committed big dollars to Tannehill this offseason; speaking to the team's belief in his future as the cornerstone of the franchise. We forget that Tannehill was stuck in Mike Sherman's unimaginative offense for the better part of seven years (including college), and 2015 represents only the second season since high school that Tannehill has a dynamic, adaptable game plan to work with. OC Bill Lazor may not be the mad genius of Chip Kelly, but he is running a similar game plan. Tannehill has a big arm, is mobile, and now has a cadre of receivers unmatched in his career. That's a recipe for fantasy stardom.
Justin Howe: Tannehill has certainly improved as an NFL passer, and no one can take that away from him. But he still has serious problems throwing down the field, and that has real fantasy consequences. His deep-ball struggles have noticeably shackled his and his receivers' upsides. He could never get on the same page as Mike Wallace, one of the league's premier big-play threats. And while he doesn't deserve all of the blame, it's telling that Tannehill struggled to throw downfield to anyone. In 2014, Wallace was the only Dolphins wideout to catch more than two passes 20+ yards downfield. All told, Tannehill created just three touchdowns on passes of 20+ yards or more—that's fewer than Austin Davis (who started just nine games), and more than only Alex Smith and David Carr among full-timers.
So, it appears Tannehill's only chances at another top-10 quarterback season hinge upon the Dolphins' offensive efficiency repeating entirely in 2015. If Tannehill still can't hit on deep balls here and there, they'll have to again reach the red zone at an elite level to allow for another 27 TD passes. And they'll have to it while breaking in a new wide receiver corps. Tannehill may repeat his successful 2014, but he seems unlikely to improve upon it, and I doubt I'll gamble too much on him this August.
Andy Hicks: I feel that Ryan Tannehill is a borderline QB1 prospect this year in fantasy leagues. He has better receivers to call on this year and depending on when the offense clicks and what weapons he has at his disposal, his upside is as high as QB6 overall. That said, he finished the 2014 season strong and if he can get on the same page with his new receivers quickly we really don't know how good he can be.
Daniel Simpkins: Jason, I think you hit on the most powerful point that drafters are neglecting. Most people I poll don't realize that Tannehill finished in the top ten fantasy quarterbacks last year. The misconception they seem to have is that the top ten is his upside, not his floor. Andy talked about the impact of receiving target turnover, but I just don't see that being a negative for Tannehill. How often do you see a massive depth chart change result in improved weapons? Not often! Wallace, Hartline, and Clay departed, but the team brings in Stills, Parker, and Cameron. I'll argue all day that these the latter options are superior to the former ones. It will take them some time to build rapport, but that will probably be taken care of with the reps they'll get in preseason action. In my mind, all the signs point to Tannehill progressing, not regressing. A top eight finish is not out of his reach.
Matt Waldman: Lots of good points in this discussion ranging from the questions about Tannehill's vertical accuracy to the potential impact of personnel turnover at the receiver position.
There were similar questions about Matt Ryan's deep accuracy after a few years in the league. He often missed wide-open looks to Harry Douglas, Roddy White, and Michael Jenkins when he had to throw the ball more than 40 yards down field. Ryan's accuracy on tape has improved, but the biggest difference has been Atlanta's addition Julio Jones.
Whether you call Jones a bad-ball player, a mistake eraser, or a 50-50 specialist, the Falcons receiver brings a dimension of play to the Falcons that allows Ryan to do the hardest thing first—diagnose the open man—and have a little pressure taken off the need for pinpoint vertical accuracy when that open man downfield has Jones' skills to win the ball in tight coverage.
Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker offer this skill in varying ways. Stills is smaller, but he has proven he's capable of these plays in a Sean Payton offense that relied on Brees to "throw open" receivers who could adjust in tight spots to win the ball. Parker earned a first-round pick on this ability.
What people often overlook about the vertical passing game when they blame the quarterback is the route running of the receivers. It's a vital part of a successful vertical game and it's far more than getting separation on the defender. The receiver's timing off the line of scrimmage and ability to maintain that vertical line while working past a press defender or off coverage corner is often the difference between a catch and an attempt that looks like the quarterback overthrew the receiver.
Mike Wallace was a raw receiver at Ole Miss who made a faster-than-expected transition in Pittsburgh. He has continued to develop over the years, and he has made some tough plays in tight coverage, but has anyone considered that Ben Roethlisberger's scrambling often gave Wallace time to work behind a secondary and wait on the deep ball like an outfielder more often than most receivers will see in their pro lifetime?
Tannehill misses vertical attempts and needs to improve, but the Dolphins recognized that they needed bigger or grittier players at the catch point.
There's a good chance there won't be a consistent option beyond Landry and Jordan Cameron. This is enough for Tannehill to flirt with the top-12 fantasy quarterbacks. If one of Jennings, Stills, or Parker does their job in the intermediate, deep, and red zones of the field, Tannehill is easily a top-12 passer. I think the trio will do enough as a combo to make it so.
If two of these three receivers click with Tannehill, the Dolphins quarterback could finish with 4500 yards and 30 scores, putting him near the top five this year. I have Tannehill No. 12 in my rankings and projections.
Justin Howe: I'd like to like some of these guys more, I would. But I'm also concerned that this entire offense may be headed for dysfunction. We know how bonkers the ownership-GM situation has always been, but Joe Philbin is included in that and absolutely on the hot seat. He came out looking ugly in the Bullygate scandal, reports have claimed the players aren't on board with him, and there's a new GM in place. Most importantly, he's 23-25 through three seasons. He was just given an extension, but only for one year, through 2016. (As if an NFL contract meant anything in terms of years anyway.) Owner Stephen Ross said of the extension, "You don't get the best from someone when operating with a gun to their head," which to me translates as, "We certainly don't want to lock the guy up long-term Ross keeps talking about "one year" in relation to Philbin and he clearly doesn't want to commit.
A lot of this may be speculation, sure. But to me, there's enough smoke to at least temper my upside expectations for the Dolphins and prepare for the possibility they wind up a dysfunctional unit. If the upsides and downsides are similar, I'll usually go for the more dependable option. So if I'm choosing among Tannehill and his competitors (Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, etc.) or Landry and his peers (Martavis Bryant, Vincent Jackson) then I'm likely to go for the (far) more dependable and consistent commodities.
Put it this way: I feel that this offense may be ascending, but to acquire its key pieces, you're forced to spend premium picks, as though they're a sure thing to improve upon a really good 2014. Think Tannehill in the 8th/9th or Lamar Miller in the 2nd/3rd: these are tricky picks for me. Their cost has most or all of the upside already cooked into it.
Jeff Pasquino: I'm a big fan of the Miami offense and the passing game this year. Tannehill is one of the best QB2s (draft-wise) to take given that yes, he did actually finish as a top-10 quarterback last year, and I like how the targets have improved for him. Stills is not Mike Wallace, but I think comparable numbers are attainable in the vertical game as Stills can stretch the field, even as the probable WR2 for Miami. Don't believe me? Look at Stills' numbers vs. Wallace from last year—63 vs. 68 catches and 931 vs. 862 yards. The only major difference is that Wallace had 10 touchdowns while Stills only had three. If Stills gets similar work I expect similar numbers, if not better. Landry and Stills are your likely starters, but if Parker can learn quickly, this will get crowded quickly with all three wanting targets. That's why Jennings is being drafted so low.
John Mamula: Many people are saying that this is a "make or break" season for Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins. I thought the Dolphins reached for him at eighth overall back in the 2012 draft. The only franchise quarterbacks that stood out prior to that draft were Andrew Luck and a pre-injury Robert Griffin III III. Tannehill simply does not have the pedigree and the skills to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Since that draft, I have felt that the Dolphins have continually tried to pound a square peg into a round hole by assembling the right pieces around him. From what I have seen up to this point, I have a feeling the Dolphins will be looking for another quarterback within the next couple of years.
For fantasy purposes, I am taking a wait-and-see approach with all Dolphins this season. With the offensive additions of Stills, Landry, and Cameron, this offense has the potential to improve in 2015. But that is all the offense has at this time, "potential." In most cases, multiple offense additions take a while to get on the same page. Also, Tannehill has been inconsistent up to this point in his career. He had only two games with over 300 yards passing (Week 15 at NE and Week 16 vs. MIN) last season. I think he will be similar in 2015 and thus he is only a matchup based play. I would not want to rely on him if my QB1 went down. I would much rather have a proven QB, such as Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, who are being drafted in similar rounds.
Alex Miglio: Tannehill is a polarizing player. I get why—he was a top-10 draft pick without the immediate returns we got from Andrew Luck or even Robert Griffin III III. Digging deeper, though, you'll find a nascent quarterback with huge fantasy potential.
Statistically, it's hard to argue Tannehill isn't on the rise. Since coming into the league in 2012, he's improved each year in every major passing category: completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns, TD-INT ratio, yards per attempt, and QB rating.
His detractors will argue, fairly, that his yards per attempt (and related stats like adjusted yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt) don't exactly point to greatness. But this is a team that clearly trusts its improving quarterback with a better arsenal to put up the ball almost 600 times. This is also the second year under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who figured out he should get Tannehill on the move after a few games last season.
As Jason pointed out, Tannehill snuck into the top 10 last year. The trouble is he didn't put up any massive games—he is more of a high floor than high ceiling. Which is why I like where he is currently being drafted—a borderline QB1.
James Brimacombe: I also have to agree with Jason and Daniel on Tannehill being the ninth best fantasy quarterback last season. Most drafters are seeing Tannehill is a high upside QB2 still but in reality should he be considered a low end QB1? It is still hard to see Tannehill in the elite quarterback conversation but when drafting and quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater and to a lesser extent Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and even Drew Brees are sitting there who do you take and why? Brady and Brees are the old guys where we have seen the production and they still feel relatively safe as options for your QB1. For drafters not wanting to play it safe and trying to hit that home run I think the time is now for you to take a big chance on Ryan Tannehill being that QB1 that can come at a moderate ADP spot and offer a huge gain to your fantasy team if it all lines up and he continues to surge into his fourth season in the league. Tannehill is the classic fantasy debate of playing it safe or going with your gut feeling and trying to hit that home run.
Is it weird that Jarvis Landry is going ahead of Stills and Parker (and way ahead of Jennings)?
Jason Wood: Jarvis Landry deserves top billing among the receivers because of the continuity. He knows this system and has a rapport with Tannehill that shouldn't be underestimated. Mike Wallace is a more talented player but struggled in Miami because of a lack of chemistry. Landry could easily catch 90+ receptions this year, and would be my bet to lead the team in targets, receptions and yards. Parker is the long-term bet for dominance, but he's still recovering from a collegiate injury and looks more like a second half contributor—if at all. Jennings and Stills are intriguing, particularly at their current ADPs, but they also both have the kind of game that's reliant on deep downfield passing; the same skill set that didn't click for Mike Wallace in this offense.
Justin Howe: It makes total sense to target Landry before his teammates. He has all the makings of a PPR monster, and 90+ catches are well within his grasp. Around midseason of his rookie year, Landry became Tannehill's preferred target, drawing nine targets a game (23% of the team's looks) down the stretch. And despite all of the additions, that doesn't seem likely to change much; my projections only slip his target share to 21.5%, still tops on the team by a healthy margin. He fits Tannehill's skillset perfectly as an ultra-reliable short-ball target
The rest of the receiving corps still has to prove a fit into the offense. Stills is a favorite of mine, but all of my praise and hype are projection and speculation. He's never played with Tannehill and only been a featured wide receiver in short spurts. Parker is a fairly raw rookie who will likely miss his entire first preseason to a potentially troublesome foot injury; he'll be eased into the offense and could even be a redshirted non-factor in 2015. Jennings is clearly near the end of the line and will likely spend the year in a mentorship role for the youngsters.
Landry doesn't do terribly much with his boatload of receptions, so his star fades a bit outside of PPR formats. But even in standard leagues, he's an upper-tier WR3 option: 95 receptions would have to come with roughly 1,000 yards and 5-8 touchdowns, after all.
Andy Hicks: As we saw in Carolina last year, when there is a massive turnover of receivers things don't always go smoothly.
That said I would have to say that it is an upgraded offense and while that may take a while to bed in, Jarvis Landry has to be the biggest beneficiary of all of this.
He is the only one who has worked with Tannehill when the pressure is on and there will be a mutual level of trust built up. It is natural to be concerned about the nine yards a catch though. Only one receiver in the last 50 years has had more catches for a smaller YPC figure and that was Danny Amendola in 2010 when he recorded 85-689 in 2010. In fact only Eric Metcalf has posted more fantasy points with a lower yards per reception figure. He was a different kind of player though so ultimately we have to be concerned about the ultimate upside of Landry based on one season.
As for the other guys, like Jason and Justin said I have reservations on how much we'll see from DeVante Parker this season. We'll see how much he does in training camp and preseason before we ultimately rule him out though. Odell Beckham Jr Jr didn't do much either. Then again many others before Beckham were limited in preseason and were minor players during the regular season. The odds suggest we need to see something from Parker before the regular season.
With Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings around the Dolphins do have players of various experience to call on and while I wouldn't expect much from Jennings, his two years with the Vikings are probably his upside here, Stills is the interesting one. The Saints gave up a young and promising receiver fairly easily and he had more opportunity there than he'll probably have in Miami. What do they know about the third year player that we don't? New Orleans drafted Stills in the fifth round and got a third rounder back plus Dannell Ellerbe, so it's a big win for the Saints as far as a return goes, but few teams give up on up-and-coming receivers when he was needed and would have been productive with his former team. On face value Stills has a big upside this year, but a fairly low floor as well.
Alex Miglio: A fair point about the turnover in Carolina last season, but the Carolina receiving corps was awful outside rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Cam Newton also missed most of the offseason and preseason with different injuries, and his offensive line was also terrible.
Miami has a lot more talent to work with, assuming the offense can stay relatively healthy.
I like Stills as a younger, cheaper version of Wallace while Parker has A.J. Green potential in him. Jordan Cameron is a red zone nightmare, though his concussion issues are scary. The offensive line fell apart last year when Branden Albert tore his ACL, but he should be back to start the season.
Matt Waldman: It's difficult to argue with Landry as the PPR leader for this corps and because Tannehill's past production reflects greater accuracy on short and intermediate passing than the vertical game, there are valid questions about the value of Kenny Stills or DeVante Parker this year.
My concern is how fast Parker can improve his releases off the line of scrimmage. He struggled a lot against physical coverage and often lost a lot of fade routes and vertical plays well before the ball arrived. This was against ACC defenders, not NFL corners. Parker will get better and he'll have his moments where his natural athleticism makes fantasy owners excited. He's a great dynasty offering, but a little overrated even for a rookie in redraft formats.
This is why Greg Jennings remains a viable option for consideration late in drafts. He's a strong route runner and will be where Tannehill needs him to be. Stills has the best combo of upside and experience, but the Saints weren't attached to the receiver due to maturity issues. To be more specific, Stills wasn't a major problem, but his habits were enough of a tipping point to part ways with him when the right deal came along.
I feel safest about Landry and Cameron and the best upside values are Stills and Jennings after the 10th round.
Jeff Pasquino: I do find it very strange that Landry is getting drafted so far ahead of the other Dolphins receivers. Landry is more in the same vein as Wes Welker (with the Patriots) as a quick possession receiver who can work well out of the slot. I expect Miami to use him more like that with Stills and either Jennings or Parker outside in 3-wide sets. Overall, I think the best wide receiver to own for season-long totals is Stills, but in a weekly "high floor" outlook I would rather have Landry.
John Mamula: Landry being drafted ahead of Stills and Parker does not surprise me. He was the only consistent Dolphins wide receiver last season. Drafters have penciled him in as the same PPR wide receiver this season but again this offense has a lot of new parts. I want to see if he has the same role in a couple of preseason games before deciding to draft him on any of my teams.
Alex Miglio: Determining value for Tannehill's targets gets tricky. Jarvis Landry has great PPR potential, but he might be overvalued—I feel like he has limited upside as a scoring threat. Stills has the opposite problem—greater variance, but a much better best-ball option than weekly plug-in option. Parker will be difficult to peg because he is coming back from foot surgery—he might not be ready to start the year.
Where do you rank Cameron among fantasy tight ends assuming he stays concussion-free?
Justin Howe: I'm not so sure Cameron is an upgrade over Charles Clay. Even when healthy—an extreme rarity—Cameron hasn't been a very consistent producer. He's a great athlete and was dominant for a short stretch of 2013 with Brian Hoyer at the helm, so you know there's upside there. But it's worrisome that the two couldn't reclaim that rapport last year. Cameron caught 70% of his targets and five touchdowns over that awesome four-game run, but just 47% and one touchdown over seven games together in 2014. His primary skill is getting down the field, exploiting mismatches up the seams and in the secondary, which isn't Tannehill's specialty. And he's not particularly efficient in the red zone—30% of his career touchdowns came in one 2013 game—so he's not a strong bet for 6+ scores.
All told, Cameron is a fade for me. Even if he's healthy, it's hard to envision a true TE1 line, and there are 5-7 other options below his ADP range I project to similar totals with similar upside and fewer red flags.
Andy Hicks: Jordan Cameron adds another level to the puzzle. I disagree with Justin to a degree on his assessment of the change here. I feel Cameron is clearly a better player and receiver, but agree that his health concerns are genuine. If Cameron can play the whole season, then the Dolphins and Tannehill will be very productive. If Cameron misses time then Dion Sims is likely to be a similar producer to Charles Clay.
John Mamula: Assuming Cameron can stay concussion free, he is a borderline TE1. I would prefer to invest my draft pick on a more proven, consistent option at TE.
Alex Miglio: Cameron finally has a quarterback. He could be huge this year, but his ADP is pretty much in line with the risk-reward proposition.
As of late July, every single one of those guys is the number one fantasy wide receiver in at least one Footballguys staffer's rankings.
Are they all bunched pretty close together in your mind, or do you have any of them substantially ahead of or substantially behind the others?
Jason Wood: The perceived depth at the receiver position is unmatched in recent history. There's no clear-cut consensus number-one option this year, although I think Antonio Brown generally goes first at the position in the majority of PPR-format leagues. Brown is my choice as the top receiver because of the rare combination of monstrous targets, a high catch rate, and prolific passing offense. In terms of tiers, I think there is a clear delineation between the Top six—Brown, Bryant, Thomas, Jones, Beckham and Nelson, and the Next four—Cobb, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and T.Y. Hilton. If you don't come away from your draft with at least one of these players, you're putting yourself behind the 8-ball. In 2011 and 2012, there were only three receivers with 10+ touchdown receptions. In 2013 and 2014...there were 21!
The only guy on the list I wouldn't see as the potential number one overall receiver is Calvin Johnson. Johnson has been the best of this bunch career-to-date, but he's getting older and has battled nagging injuries. Those kinds of nicks and dents catch up with a player. Add to that my belief that Matthew Stafford is one of the most overrated signal callers in the league, and I would feel better having Johnson as a WR2 than the top option.
Justin Howe: I agree with Jason here: it's mind-numbing to sort these guys, especially at the very top. I think Brown, Bryant, Beckham, and Thomas all have strong potential to wind up the number one wideout, and none of the other names would be particularly surprising. All of these guys are volume-heavy target hogs, and all but Johnson have elite-ish quarterbacks throwing to them. (And Johnson historically transcends quarterbacking.) I've drafted all of these guys at least once or twice thus far, but like Jason, I tend to lean toward Brown at the top for the same reasoning. He's a mortal lock for a massive workload, both underneath and down the field, both in the red zone and out of it. He's a high-efficiency guy who catches everything near him, so there's little worry over a drop in reception value. And as an added bonus, he's typically good for a punt return TD a year—though why the Steelers risk him in that role, I'll never understand.
I also agree with Jason about Calvin Johnson, who has my lowest ranking among these options. He's still fantastic, but carries some health concerns after missing five games and parts of a few more over the last two years. Furthermore, while he remains Matthew Stafford's top target, he no longer dominates the Lions passing game like he once did. The team has finally found a dynamic complement in Golden Tate, who's capable of taking on whole game plans and allowing Johnson breathers from carrying the offense. Tate did see 10+ targets in seven games alongside Johnson, after all, so we know the team is unafraid of lightening their superstar's load. Even in 16 games, Johnson could slip to a line around 85-1,200-9, which would likely trail the rest of this group.
It pains me to say this, but I have my reservations about Julio Jones. As an annual (over)drafter of the guy, I've tracked him obsessively through more Falcons games than I ever thought I'd watch. And while he's arguably the league's best and most dynamic all-around wideout, he's simply not a big part of the team's plans in the red zone. Last year he saw just 12 looks from inside the 20 across 15 games, way below the expectations of a dominant, heavily targeted number one wideout. And some of it appears to be Jones' fault. Over the last three years, Matt Ryan is just three of 14 from inside the five when targeting Jones—and 33 of 63 when throwing to anyone else.
Don't get me wrong: I love Jones as an upper-tier WR1, and I'd take him over a couple of guys on this list. But for all of his otherworldly potential, I'm cooler on him than on Brown, Bryant, Beckham, or Thomas. All of those guys share Jones' upside in volume and yardage, and all are likely to lap Jones in touchdowns.
Daniel Simpkins: I'm coolest on Jones out of all these guys, but not entirely for the same reasons that Justin listed. The repeat issues with the foot are always a lingering concern. The other thing that really holds Jones back is the lack of a complementary target to take some of the heat off of him in coverage. Sigmund and Matt talked about this in a recent On The Couch episode. When Roddy White was out last year, there was a seven-game stretch where Julio Jones didn't score and averaged around 70 yards a game. When Roddy White came back, it really helped open things up for Jones, but the damage was likely done to teams that owned him. That's unacceptable production out of a guy I draft to be my number one fantasy wideout. It very well could happen again. White is slowing down with age and has missed time the last two years. The Falcons also lost their third option in Harry Douglas and only added the diminutive Justin Hardy to the receiving corps. There's nobody in that offense that can draw coverage away should White continue to decline or go down to injury. If I'm contemplating Jones vs. Anderson, Arian Foster, or DeMarco Murray at the end of the first round, I'm taking all of them over Jones without hesitation.
Chad Parsons: I agree with Justin in terms of red-zone frustrations and reservations about Julio Jones to-date. However, it is not enough to bump Jones down from the No. one receiver perch in my rankings. I would not bet on Calvin Johnson or Jordy Nelson as the top receiver due to age and historical probability to peak at 30 years old or beyond. I have a feeling the best season for Dez Bryant (like Julio Jones) is still in front of him.
Odell Beckham Jr can take a production cut of about 20% and still hit 20 PPG in PPR scoring for an encore to his electric rookie season. Demaryius Thomas' risk is that Peyton Manning will continue his decline from late 2014 or convert fewer of those screens into big plays. Antonio Brown has a high floor in terms of usage, but his touchdown total is highly likely to take a dive by 5+ scores in 2015.
Jeff Pasquino: I have to echo the sentiments here so far—these guys are certainly in the same tier, and I would be happy to have any of them. In fact, if you are drafting at the back third of a PPR draft, getting two of these guys will put you out way ahead in my mind. Granted it does force you to look at running back pretty hard in rounds three and four, but WR3 can come much, much later and the advantage you have at WR1 and WR2 helps to make up for not having a top five running back pick.
None of these guys are clear WR1 vs. WR7—they are almost all interchangeable for me, and make for a welcome addition to any of my teams.
Andy Hicks: I would love to have any of these guys, but if I really wanted one I would have to go with Dez Bryant.
I would agree with Chad that his best season may still be in front of him. He is at the peak of his powers now, the Cowboys have lost DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten is another year older and none of the younger receivers are doing much to take away targets. I think the loss of Murray from the Cowboys is going to tilt the passing game back to where it was in 2012-13 and Bryant will be the biggest beneficiary.
If I had to throw stones at the other elite receivers, it would be as follows:
Julio Jones just doesn't get enough touchdowns to be at the top of this list. Calvin Johnson may have had his best year, has a good receiver opposite him, has injury concerns and Stafford is an issue to a degree. Odell Beckham Jr Jr has had a golden nine- or ten-game stretch, but we haven't seen him work with a healthy Victor Cruz and we don't know if his hamstring injuries are going to limit him or force him out for some games.
The other guys are harder to find possible major faults with, but Demaryius Thomas has a new offense this year which is likely to tilt towards running the ball, and I have real concerns about Peyton Manning being anywhere near his best in his likely final season. Jordy Nelson has a serious rival for targets in Randall Cobb and while Nelson is a safe elite receiver, his upside is capped. Antonio Brown is much harder to negate outside of his size. His production has been upper-echelon elite and ultimately the number one comes down to Brown and Bryant for me.
Dez Bryant ultimately wins because he can manhandle defensive backs and is an almost certain 10+ touchdown producer.
John Mamula: While Antonio Brown may be the safest option of the wide receivers listed, especially for PPR leagues, I think there is a changing of the guard at the top of the wide receiver ranks this season with Odell Beckham Jr. Many are expecting regression from Beckham this season but what if last year was just the beginning? By now, we have all seen Beckham's stats: 12 games played, 91 receptions, 1305 receiving yards, and 12 receiving touchdowns. His stretch run from Week 14-16 won many a fantasy league last season. He set many NFL records during his first season and I think he continues his dominance in year two.
Let's think about this, Beckham put up these gaudy numbers with Rueben Randle on the opposite side of the field. Everyone in the stadium knew where the ball was going. Beckham was usually double- or triple-covered. But guess what? Eli still threw him the rock and he beat the coverage. What is going to happen when teams have to account for a good WR, Victor Cruz, on the other side of the field?
Another reason for expected improvement is that the Giants offense will be in their second season under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. The learning curve is over for Eli Manning and the Giants wide receivers. The Giants offense averaged 29.1 points over their final six games last season. Again, these numbers were without Victor Cruz or a competent wide receiver on the other side of Beckham.
The final reason that I am bullish on Beckham is his schedule. The NFC East is ripe with four potential shootouts vs. Philadelphia and Dallas. To top it off, the Giants play the NFC South this season. I can envision more high scoring games vs. Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay.
Odell Beckham Jr has both a high floor and the highest ceiling of all of the top seven wide receivers listed.
James Brimacombe: Right now I am finding it hard to argue with anything related to the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive scheme and players. Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown are all elite at their respective positions. It just came out that their goal is to score 30+ points per game heading into 2015 season and when you hear that number and compare what they did on offense last year it sounds easily attainable.
No matter the fantasy league you play in Redraft, Dynasty, or even DFS, Antonio Brown has to be the first name that comes to your mind when you are going to lock in your first wide receiver. He first broke out in 2013 with a 110-1499-8 line finishing as the seventh overall fantasy wide receiver that season and followed it up last season with an incredible 129-1698-13 line. With him adding five additional touchdowns last season that just put him over the top as the wide receiver you have to have first. The Steelers defense has also been a struggle over the last couple of seasons and they are trying to recoup that struggle with a big push on offense and Brown is one of those big factors in that.
It is also impressive to look at what Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr Jr. have done last year with them both putting up monster statistics but when it comes down to picking that safe wide receiver with the most upside week in and week out you have to side with Brown. Out of 16 games last season, Brown caught 7+ receptions in 14 of them with the other two games catching five passes. His worst fantasy week was in Week 5 against Jacksonville where he was targeted 12 times for five receptions and 84 yards. He also had four games where he caught two touchdowns in a game and knowing that your wide receiver can give you a multi touchdown game once every four games is a huge edge over your competition.
DeMarco Murray is gone, but the offensive line returns three Pro-Bowlers and will seek to make a star out of Joseph Randle. Can Randle come anywhere near matching what Murray did last season? Is Darren McFadden a legitimate threat to eat into Randle's carries? (How about Lance Dunbar?)
We're going to find out whether last year's success had more to do with Murray's talent or with the offensive line's dominance. What's your bet?
Jason Wood: While I think the Cowboys line is legitimately stellar, its value is being overstated by many fantasy pundits. DeMarco Murray was second in the NFL last year in yards after contact and was among the league leaders in broken tackles. Yes, the line helped open holes (Murray also led the league in yards before initial contact), but Murray played a massive role in his own success. The fact Dallas stood pat in free agency and the NFL draft speaks volumes about the opportunity for Joseph Randle. All due respect to Darren McFadden, but he's guaranteed less money than Ryan Williams and it's been years since McFadden resembled a capable NFL contributor. This is Randle's job to lose and if he struggles, the Cowboys running game becomes a mediocre committee not worth fantasy owners' time. Dunbar gets preseason hype every year, but he's small and limited in what he can do within the Cowboys scheme. Dunbar's only notable fantasy role is as a spoiler if the team gives him third down reps and takes Randle off the field.
Andy Hicks: This is going to be one of the most interesting stories during training camp and preseason. I don't think many have confidence that any of the existing backs on the roster are going to be reliable options this year and are hoping that Dallas somehow makes a trade for a better option out there. Either Dallas really knows what it is has in Randle, McFadden, Williams, and Dunbar or they think they can plug anyone behind their line and get production.
If it's the latter it is a dangerous game to play and one that is likely to backfire. DeMarco Murray is one of the most underrated fantasy backs in years and has not been given due credit for his success last year. There have even been stories floated recently with Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson saying that Murray could have run for 2500 yards last year if he'd taken advantage of all the opportunities presented to him. Backhanded compliments about trying to run guys over instead of evading defenders avoids the fact that Murray gained many yards earlier in plays than most other backs would have accrued. Put an Olympic sprinter in the open field and he'll likely take it all the way, but how many times would he get there in the first place? Murray is one of the best backs in the league and we'll see it this year in Philadelphia.
My own view is that the Dallas passing game is likely to return in 2015 as the running game struggles. This means more opportunities for Romo, good and bad. Last season will be seen as anomaly. Of course if Dallas gets better options somehow during the next month then maybe I'll reevaluate, but none of the backs on the roster right now give me any kind of hope that Dallas has a good running game this season.
Justin Howe: Here's an interesting Randle stat: according to Pro Football Focus, 22% of his carries from 2014 went for 10+ yards, the highest rate of all NFL running backs. If nothing else, it's a reminder that Randle is easily the most dynamic and efficient back in the Cowboys' running back room. And I really think he'll be given the opportunity to be a workhorse. I remember Jerry Jones heaping a lot of praise on Randle when he was drafted, and he's continued to talk him up, even when Murray was around and running well. His ceiling is quite high due to his o-line, and his floor is better than you might think, considering the lack of tough competition in this backfield.
McFadden is just brutal at this point. Averaging 3.3 yards per carry over the last three years... one season of 14+ games out of nine... subpar production in the passing game... all told, I don't know how valuable he'd even be as the starter. Even if you account for that awesome offensive line and project 4+ YPC, how valuable is that, really? He certainly doesn't bring Randle's solid upside to the table, or Dunbar's passing game potential. I think his best-case scenario—and it would require an injury or face plant to Randle while McFadden somehow stays healthy—is as a fantasy RB3/flex type for as long as his body holds up. If the running game comes down to just McFadden and Dunbar, you can expect Jones to get on the phone and kick the tires on a talented backup (Christine Michael? Zac Stacy?) or a rotational veteran (Chris Johnson? Ahmad Bradshaw?).
Jeff Pasquino: I think you have to take that stat (22% of carries of 10+ yards) with a big grain of salt, Justin. He only had 51 carries, so you're talking about 11 carries. Sure he has explosion and can catch a defense flat-footed with his speed, but how much of that came due to game situation or after Murray had pounded the defensive front?
I see Dallas as giving the ball to Randle 15-20 times a game with McFadden getting about 25-30% of the overall running game. Randle should account for over 50% of the yards on the ground, but they will also dump the ball off to him for a few screens as well. I just do not see Randle as a feature back that will pound it between the tackles.
Going back to the stats from last year, Randle had 55 touches of the ball, but just six on third down—and two of those were catches.
This situation feels a lot like Indianapolis back in the days of Joseph Addai—the situation (good passing game, good offensive line) could make Randle look far better than he is, which is all a fantasy owner really cares about. I just wonder about how many touches Randle will get a game. I think Randle can break a long one at any time, but as far as weekly consistency to deliver 20-25 touches and 100 yards on a regular basis, I just do not see that. Randle makes for a solid RB3 or late RB2 with upside, but I would not want to have to rely on his production against a good run defense.
Justin Howe: Yes, the sample size is small. But when we're projecting into the future here, not just examining the past. Not to sound obtuse, but we're drafting Melvin Gordon III, Ameer Abdullah, and Tevin Coleman in the first five rounds based on nonexistent sample sizes. The reason for that, of course, is that we're projecting their skillsets into new roles. With the massive running back turnover lately, it's essential that no stone go unturned—as long as we're assigning appropriate weight to each stone.
The fact that just six of Randle's 55 touches were third-down touches, I feel, kind of speaks to my point on Randle as a feature back. He took 32 first-down carries, a comparable number to other small-sample handcuff darlings. That suggests he wasn't viewed as a gadget back, but as Murray's clear backup. Now consider that, of Randle's 32 first-down rushes, 22 (69%) came over the first three quarters. That's actually a higher rate than those of other small-sample handcuff darlings like Knile Davis, James Starks, or Robert Turbin. And he averaged 7.5 YPC on his first-down rushes. In fact, roughly half of them (15) were successful runs (4+ yards). Again, a far better rate than Davis, Starks, or Turbin posted.
So while it's not proof, it's certainly an indicator that Randle may well have more to his game than the majority of his backup peers. Imagine if Davis took over the head of the KC backfield, or if Eddie Lacy was injured tomorrow and left Starks atop the depth chart. We'd target them in the first 3-5 rounds as well, and rightfully so. What it comes down to, I believe, are two factors that bias us all against Randle: that Murray's 2014 is hardly repeatable and Randle is destined to fall short of it, and that the Cowboys brought in McFadden to compete for work. The former shouldn't be a factor; we couldn't responsibly project ANY Murray replacement to 449 touches and 2,261 yards, so it's unfair to demand similar numbers from Randle. We're drafting Randle to provide RB2 numbers, not overall number one running back status.
And the latter just isn't as problematic to me as it is to most. It's hard for me to see much impact from McFadden at all. He's been quite possibly the league's worst all-around back over the last three years, with a YPC ahead of only Trent Richardson. He's nothing special as a receiver. He's entering his eighth season, so the shine is off the "untapped potential" apple. And the Cowboys are paying him next to nothing. We know he's exceptionally brittle. I can't help but see him as a backup, not a rotational cog.
I don't think we need to discuss Dunbar much in the running game. He could conceivably gobble up the vast majority of the passing downs, sure. But if that were the case, I would think the team would've at least tried him in that role last year. I think he's got a Theo Riddick ceiling and a Travaris Cadet floor.
Daniel Simpkins: I think Randle is the answer for those who want to wait a little bit at running back or grab a third high upside option in our drafts. However, I think it's important that owners price in the risk. Yes, Randle is a player with major character concerns. Drug possession, past allegations of domestic abuse, and a history of shoplifting are not things to take lightly. I think we should also realize that he's not as talented as Murray was, so it will be unreasonable to expect rushing totals like that from him. At his current price point of the fifth or sixth round, I'm completely fine with taking Randle, as the upside more than justifies the risks. It's when he starts creeping into the fourth and third rounds that I usually pass on Randle. I anticipate that when the team doesn't make a move to add another back by the end of August, he'll move up into the second round. If that happens, I think it will be wise to stay far, far away.
Matt Waldman: Once again, the main points are what you see or hear about everywhere when you research Randle's fantasy prospects:
The line his heralded, but does it make a running game as much as a great running back enhances the line (the chicken or the egg argument of football)?
Is Jerry Jones' love for Joseph Randle on-point or is this SEC/BIG 12 mania that he sometimes shows?
Does Randle's big-play efficiency offer the correct context to predict more of the same for him as the feature back?
I was never has high on Randle's potential as a feature back. The two things in his favor are acceleration and adequate vision. "Adequate" is probably the most appropriate word I could think of when describing multiple facets of his game: power, balance, agility, speed, etc.
Vision—if speaking from the context of decision-making, maturity, understanding blocking scheme and reading defenses, and creativity—is a trait that running backs can improve when they enter the NFL. Randle should be better at reading defenses and mature decision-making than he was at Oklahoma State. What we don't know is how much he has improved since he was a starter.
He only has 105 career carries and not in the context of a starting role. It's why I'm a little skeptical about the value of his big-play run stats, yards per carry, or anything data driven with such a small sample. I like Wood's point about offensive line and fantasy production. I agree that Randle won't be a stud because of the line. He's not in the same class as Murray. But there is precedent with a good line making average talents productive fantasy backs:
- Denver Broncos 1999: Cleveland Gary 276-1159-7
- Denver Broncos 2000: Mike Anderson 297-1487-15
- Denver Broncos 2004: Reuben Droughns 275-1240-6
- Denver Broncos 2005: Mike Anders 239-1014-12
- Houston Texans 2008: Steve Slaton 268-1282-9
- Indianapolis Colts 2001: Dominic Rhodes 233-1104-9 (when Edgerrin James got hurt)
- Los Angeles Rams 1987: Charles White 324-1374-11 (the year after Eric Dickerson was traded)
- Los Angeles Rams 1988: Greg Bell 288-1212-16 (replacing White)
- Los Angeles Rams 1989: Greg Bell 272-1137-15
- Los Angeles Rams 1990: Cleveland Gary 204-808-14 (replacing Bell)
We know about the Broncos and Texans lines. If you are old enough to recall, the Rams unit had Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, six-time Pro-Bowl Center Doug Smith, and two-time All-pro Doug Newberry during this period of runners that included Dickerson, White, Bell and Gary.
These stat lines above are quality numbers for RB2s and great production for RB3s. It's why I'll take Randle as high as the third round in mid-August if it's clear that Dallas anoints him the lead back and his share of the workload is at least 18-20 touches per game.
I'm betting that both the offensive line and the running back contributed to last year's production. I expect Randle—if he's the starter—to earn 245-1100-7 on the ground. That's a conservative, but reasonable estimate if you believe in the value of the offensive line. I also gave Randle 41-305-2 as a receiver. This is probably what propels him into that third-round area.
I'm not enthusiastic about Randle's talent, but he's a better bet than McFadden. I am a believer in the value of the line.
By the way, Wood's point about Dunbar is a good one. He's a skilled runner who I bet the Cowboys don't believe can carry the load, but like Jerome Harrison of year's past, Dunbar could vastly exceed expectations if injuries strike and he's forced to be the man for one season. The problem for Dunbar long-term is that teams won't want to make him the man due to his size even after he gives them a taste of what he can do.
Justin Howe: Good points about Randle's off-field issues; excessive cases need to be factored into fantasy planning. But here's an interesting on-field question: could Randle be as talented as Murray, or even more so? Probably not, but consider a few factors:
(1) he's four years younger;
(2) he dwarfed Murray (and most of the rest of the league) in most running back metrics in 2014, including pass-blocking, albeit over a small sample size;
(3) the two posted very similar athletic numbers at their combines; and
(4) Randle was the more productive college runner by a good margin.
What if we're actually underselling Randle? With this o-line in place (even stronger now than last year), could Randle have similar upside to Murray if he holds the job all year?
Matt Waldman: We could be, but here are my quick counterpoints.
Randle's production in college vs. Murray's is in my opinion not a valid argument.
Randle had 565 carries for 3085 yards and 40 scores as a ballcarrier.
Murray had 759 carries for 3685 yards and 50 scores as a ballcarrier.
Murray also had 157 receptions for 1571 yards and 13 scores as a receiver. Randle had 108 reception for 917 yards and three touchdowns.
I don't see that Randle was more productive in college by a good margin. You might say there's an efficiency advantage to Randle, but it also doesn't show that Murray played through some tough injuries and missed significant time with injury. It also isn't comparable with the style of offenses that they were featured in and the roles they had. There are too many variables to consider to make it a compelling argument.
Combine athleticism is worth looking at if the players process the game at a similar level. If Randle proves he can use his speed, strength, and acceleration as adeptly as Murray, then it's a great point. However, athleticism metrics are physical tools for a player. I can have the same paint brush, oil paints, easel, gesso, and canvas as Picasso, but I don't think I'm going to wind up having my work displayed at the Louvre.
I think you have to give considerable skepticism to metrics if the sample size is small. If it's a large sample size, there's merit. Age? If Murray was 32, on creaky knees, and lost his burst and Randle is the age he is now? Absolutely a great factor. Can't say I'm feeling it for a 27-year-old coming off a prime year vs. 23-year-old.
Good things to discuss though, because I think a lot of people like to examine these points, but context is a vital part of making these points have merit.
Justin Howe: Indeed I meant "efficient," not "productive." Good catch. And my point on their ages wasn't communicated clearly: Randle is entering his age-23 season, which is three
And "by a good margin" was a stretch on my part; I checked their numbers and was clearly misremembering Murray's OU prowess as a receiver. But the two saw strikingly similar rushing workloads in comparable college systems. I guess my point is not to compare them to find a "winner," but just to show that they're comparable. The idea is not to devalue Murray, nor even to prove Randle the superior talent. That's not fully possible with metrics, of course. But if the common narrative is that Randle is some reserve talent who could never aspire to Murray's level, then I wonder where that comes from so necessarily. My contention is that 23-year-old Murray was not a demonstrably superior athlete, nor did he have a more efficient track record, than 23-year-old Randle does in 2015.
Small sample sizes can skew anything, sure. But they have to be evaluated; that's how you stay ahead of the game. That's how you jump on the likes of C.J. Anderson and 2010 Arian Foster, among others—by looking at wide-open, high-opportunity depth charts and evaluating the options in place.
Chad Parsons: My view of Joseph Randle dates back to his metric profile coming out of Oklahoma State. His below-average athleticism score centers around his thin frame. He had strong rushing and receiving scores. The combination of production well-beyond his athleticism creates a profile of 'only as good as his situation' for fantasy terms. The good news is Dallas is THE running back situation. However, we saw DeMarco Murray not only burst through gaping holes for 5-10 unobstructed yards multiple times per week in 2014, but consistently win collisions at the second and third levels.
I do not project Randle to do the same level of damage beyond the offensive line's initial assistance. Based on respective cost, I would rather own Darren McFadden a handful of rounds later than Randle based on recent ADP trends. The Dallas line is good enough to pump life even back into the near-dead McFadden for one more partial season in the sun.
James Brimacombe: The statistic that most surprised me with Joseph Randle was his 6.7 yards per carry last season. It came in limited fashion as he only ran the ball 51 times total (343 rushing yards), and was mostly playing in a backup roll to the Cowboys stud running back DeMarco Murray.
The fact that the Cowboys didn't flinch when they lost DeMarco Murray and just kept moving forward with Joseph Randle tells you that they have confidence in him and are excited to see what he can do in a bigger role behind one of the best Offensive Lines in the NFL. Randle may not be in line to get nearly the number of touches as Murray but he does have a great opportunity to see 12-18 carries a game and if you combine what Murray was able to accomplish last season behind that OL and what Randle gave the team in limited touches you have to think that there is some great upside in what Joseph Randle can do for your fantasy team at his current ADP.
Jeff Pasquino: I'm not a big fan of doing this, but I think it should be pointed out that the YPC is inflated due to the three times he broke off big runs of 38, 40 and 65 yards. The 65-yarder came late against a Washington team that was already beaten down and, for the most part, given up (fourth quarter, Dallas led 37-17, under two minutes to play). If you remove those three big runs of 143 yards, his carries are 48 for 200 yards, or just over four yards per carry. So the story is that Randle can break off big runs, but that his average is closer to the league norm (4 yards per carry, historically) than you might think. That's also a detriment to the perception of Randle, as the Dallas' offensive line is supposed to be well above the league average. To bring it full circle, looking at his other 48 carries I see 34 of them (71%) were for four yards or less.
Phil Alexander: Last season, Murray joined LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Chris Johnson (2009) as the only running backs in the last 10 years to exceed 1,800 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 50 receptions, and 400 receiving yards in the same season. As Jason pointed out, a year like that doesn't happen just because of an offensive line. Murray did his part in making the Dallas run blocking unit look good.
Anyone expecting Randle to sniff Murray's 28-touch-per-game average from last season is going to be sorely disappointed, but that doesn't mean he isn't properly valued at his current fourth round ADP. Let's assume Dallas—who had the fourth most rushing attempts per game in the NFL last season—becomes a middle-of-the-pack team this year in terms of rushing play percentage. That would leave about 27 rushing attempts per game to go around.
Now let's say Randle, as the Cowboys' starter, accounts for 55% of those rushing attempts (down from 82% for Murray last season). We're still looking at about 240 carries—a number only nine running backs in the NFL reached last season. At a conservative 4.4 yards per attempt, Randle would run for 1,056 yards—a number that would have been good for a Top-12 finish last year.
If we continue to assume the worst, and say Dunbar becomes the Cowboys' primary passing-down back (and I actually believe there's a good chance he will), Randle should still catch about 25 passes by virtue of being on the field more than half the time in a Scott Linehan offense. At a reasonable 6.5 yards per catch, Randle would rack up about 160 receiving yards.
No one seems willing to give McFadden a chance to carve out a significant role this season, but let's continue to play devil's advocate, and say he emerges as Dallas' primary goal line back. Scoring goal line touchdowns happens to be the one thing McFadden's been good at since entering the league (besides getting hurt). Dating back to 2008, only four running backs have a better TD conversion rate from inside the five yard line than McFadden's 50% (minimum 25 carries).
Last year, nine of Dallas' 16 rushing touchdowns came from inside the opposing team's five yard line. Suppose Dallas only scores 13 touchdowns on the ground this year (due in part to the loss of Murray), and McFadden, as Dallas' goal line back, scores seven times on goal line carries. We'll give Dunbar one rushing touchdown on the chance he takes a long run to the house. That still leaves five touchdowns on the table for Randle.
A stat line of 1,056 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 160 receiving yards, and five touchdowns would have been good for a Top-20 PPR running back finish last season. Randle is currently coming off the board as the RB18—right in line with these projections, which all seem like worst case scenarios, given a full 16 games playing in a good offense, behind the best run-blocking line in the league. Until further notice, we have to assume Randle will be the Cowboys' starter, and draft accordingly.
That will do it for this edition of the Footballguys Preseason Roundtable. Please join us again next week.