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Each NFL team is its own fantasy football organism. Will they thrive or die in 2018? This series outlines the critical questions for each team across their skill position depth charts. In this edition: AFC West
Will Case Keenum produce a rising tide for the Denver Broncos fantasy outlook?
The Broncos were outside the Top 20 in fantasy production from the quarterback position and one of four teams to produce more interceptions than touchdowns in 2018 through the air.
Verdict: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were the biggest fantasy names to suffer through Denver's 2017 season. Thomas posted his worst fantasy season since 2011 despite 140 targets (only 11.4 yards-per-catch and five touchdowns), while Sanders saw his stat line cut in half from 2016 with less than 600 yards and two scores on 92 targets. Without a strong projected tight end presence, Thomas and Sanders are both poised for bounce-back seasons pending how much of an uptick Case Keenum provides. After a hot start (six touchdowns, two interceptions) over the first two weeks, 2017 starter Trevor Siemian wilted and took the Denver passing game with him. Keenum, conversely, had his best season in the NFL last year with a 22-to-7 ratio and nearly 68% completion rate. A 10-15% overall passing game rise is a reasonable projection, which would put the historical finishes for the WR1 and WR2 on the depth chart into the Top 20 and Top 50 respectively for Thomas and Sanders. Compared to their late July ADP, Thomas is the better value with a mid-20s ADP and Sanders at WR43.
Is Royce Freeman one of the best rookie running back values?
Royce Freeman has an ADP around RB25 by late July myfantasyleague.com data.
Verdict: Devontae Booker is one of the more tenuous penciled-in running back starters in the NFL. Booker was a mid-Day 3 selection and one game of 100+ total yards (in 29 career games) under his belt. Booker had a stretch as the lead back in 2016 but rarely had 10 or more touches in a game in 2017 as Denver sought other options. On the flip side, Freeman is one of the elite metric prospects at the running back position in recent draft classes. Freeman grades in the Top 2% of the model overall, including a well-balanced profile with elite size-based athleticism, rushing, and receiving profiles. Freeman profiles similarly to comparable prospect Steven Jackson. With little on the depth chart outside of Freeman and Booker, Freeman has a golden opportunity to seize the lead role, through injury or not, by midseason and become a fantasy impact to championship-bound teams in 2018.
Is there more risk or upside with Patrick Mahomes II II?
Verdict: Patrick Mahomes II II is essentially a rookie starting quarterback after a single start late in 2017. Outside of 2017, Andy Reid's fantasy results with Alex Smith in Kansas City were average in recent years. Michael Vick had one magical season with Reid in Philadelphia, and Donovan McNabb was primarily in the QB2 zone than the Top 12 with Reid. The greatest concern with Mahomes is cost as veterans Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott, and Alex Smith are all going well behind Mahomes in ADP. Avoiding turnovers like Alex Smith (five interceptions, two fumbles over 15 games) will be a tall order for any quarterback, let alone the higher-variance Mahomes. The Footballguys rankings have Mahomes with an avoid valuation at QB16 compared to his ADP.
Should we be wary of Tyreek Hill?
Tyreek Hill, off his breakout 2017 season, has an ADP of WR10.
Verdict: The variables with Tyreek Hill are vast for his 2018 production. Patrick Mahomes II II is a notable change at quarterback from the established veteran Alex Smith. Hill also did not produce on a wide variety of routes, relying on his deep speed and manufactured short-range touches for much of his production. Sammy Watkins is a significant addition to the Chiefs passing game, garnering No. 1 wide receiver free agent money, which was already stocked with strong receiving options Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt. One risk is Watkins will see more than Albert Wilson's 62 targets a year ago (compared to Hill's position-leading 105 looks). Kelce will demand his targets (saw 122 last season) and Hunt posted 63 targets. Of any wide receiver in the top-18 for fantasy, Hill had the fewest targets last season. Marvin Jones and Juju Smith-Schuster were the only other receivers in the Top 30 to average more than 10 yards-per-target. Even maintaining a high level of efficiency, Hill's likely sag in targets would prevent him from repeating a finish in the Top 18 of fantasy production. Considering his WR10 ADP, Hill is a clear avoid player.
Is this the breakout season for Amari Cooper?
For a fourth straight season, Amari Cooper has a top-20 positional ADP (currently WR12) and is coming off the worst production year of his career.
Verdict: Cooper lacked touchdowns in 2015-16, but his volume was strong for the blue-chip prospect. This year features the Raiders as a rebound offense overall and they overhauled their wide receiver corps, adding Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant. For quarterback Derek Carr, the notable difference last year was a drop in volume and his interception rate more than doubling from 2016. The good news for Cooper is Michael Crabtree and his team-leading 101 targets are gone to Baltimore. Jordy Nelson looked physically done last year and 2018 is more of a resurrection attempt than revival to high-level fantasy production. Also, Martavis Bryant is more situational speed threat than a well-rounded wide receiver in terms of a skill set. Getting back to 130+ targets is certainly in play for Cooper, which historically puts a receiver on the top-12 track (only Mike Evans and Dez Bryant finished outside the Top 12 last year with more than 130 targets). For a true breakout, the key will be touchdowns for Cooper, who has a career 8.9% touchdown rate (roughly average for the wide receiver position). While justifying his ADP is in the range of outcomes, a high-WR1 finish is unlikely unless Oakland turns back into the 2015 version with 34 passing touchdowns and 4,100 yards through the air.
Who is the WR2 for the Chargers and does it matter for fantasy?
Verdict: Keenan Allen has monopolized targets for the Chargers when healthy, leaves nothing but scraps for the remaining Chargers receivers. The good news is Hunter Henry's season-long absence (even if Antonio Gates is signed) leaves available targets for ancillary receivers more so than the previous allocation. Tyrell Williams benefitted greatly from Allen's absence in 2016, fueling 119 targets and a high-WR2 fantasy finish. While Mike Williams has the pedigree advantage being a top-10 NFL Draft pick, he had a questionable profile entering the NFL and showed minimal in his near-redshirt rookie season. Of top-10 drafted receivers, Mike Williams has the lowest athleticism score dating back to Justin Blackmon and his college production score is the lowest since Ted Ginn Jr Jr. In short, Williams was overdrafted by the metrics. The big question would be where does Williams win in the NFL beyond being a potential jump ball and contested catch maven, his best moments at Clemson. With an above-average quarterback, historically the No.2 receiver projects in the WR30-50 range for fantasy, making Williams the best buy of the two for value.
Outside of Travis Kelce, who is fantasy relevant among the AFC West tight ends?
No tight end in the AFC West has an ADP inside the Top 25 at the position other than Travis Kelce.
Verdict: The good news is the three remaining depth charts are all cheap. Jake Butt is gaining some steam in Denver, returning from missing his rookie season with an injury. However, a non-elite passing game with at least one high-level wide receiver rarely produces much fantasy value at tight end. Plus, Butt is essentially a rookie considering his time lost. Antonio Gates rejoining the Chargers (yet to be determined at the time of publication) has some intrigue with the starting role wide open. However, Gates has eroded so much physically over the last few years, his impact would be reserved to red zone touchdowns at this point for weekly viability. Jared Cook is the remaining name of note, seeing 86 targets for Oakland in 2017, his first with the team. The ceiling is tempered as Cook has never been a strong touchdown producer in his career (5.3% touchdown rate over 350+ career receptions, well below positional average), but Cook has five top-20 fantasy finishes in his career, including flirting with top-12 numbers multiple times. Cooks is a solid bet to out-produce his ADP by a healthy margin considering 75+ targets is highly likely in 2018 and all tight ends with such volume finished TE13 or better a year ago.