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As we gear up for fantasy drafts, we know what we think of most players at this point of the summer. Whether or not you admit this to yourself is the real question.
Still, there are 10 players that truly have us in wait-and-see mode for August. This week's article examines players that have the Gut Check waiting to learn more in training camp and the preseason.
10. RB Devin Singletary (Buffalo)
Although earning first-team reps with LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore, Singletary has a ton to prove. The Bills runner has excellent vision — arguably the best combination of sight, timing, manipulation of defenders, and processing of information of the backs in this class — but he's small, short, slow, and lacks quality acceleration and change of direction quickness.
Can Singletary's vision, precise footwork, and effort overcome his lack of athletic ability? If he met the athletic baselines for the position that the Rookie Scouting Portfolio uses — baselines that are realistic enough to be inclusive of many backs lacking high-round athletic ability but possessing high-round conceptual and technical skill — Singletary would be a favorite of yours truly.
Because Singletary didn't meet these baselines, there's a lot to prove. The Gut Check will let Singletary prove them from afar—and not on a depth chart with McCoy, Gore, and T.J. Yeldon—at least until the Bills announce that Singletary will be the lead back. Yours truly isn't counting on this happening.
9. WR Donte Moncrief (Pittsburgh)
Every era has its share of players who earn opportunities with multiple teams based on physical promise and the flicker of production from a season that should have faded from memories long ago. Moncrief is likely that guy.
The optimists will point to Moncrief's 668 yards and 3 touchdowns with an injury-riddled and ineffective Jaguars offense last year as a sign that he played good football in a bad situation. If so, paring Moncrief with Ben Roethlisberger could help him yield production on par with Martavis Bryant's best work...which was about the same as Moncrief's best work while with the Colts.
Not so inspiring when you look at it this way. Then again, if you extrapolate Bryant's best year to 16 games, we're looking at no worse than top-15 fantasy production at the position:
- 134 targets
- 73 catches
- 1,112 yards
- 9 touchdowns
Those are realistic numbers when projecting an upside. With Antonio Brown leaving a lot of production behind, Moncrief could fill much of this vacuum if James Washington and/or Diontae Johnson cannot. However, there's enough talent that Moncrief is a lot less likely to reach his ceiling.
One of those reasons is that Bryant often earned a lot of his production from the slot and that's Smith-Schuster's domain. The Gut Check is waiting to see how much buzz is coming from camp about Washington and Johnson before considering Moncrief—especially when Tyrell Williams, Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Mark Andrews, and Jack Doyle are within Moncrief's ADP range.
8. QB Kirk Cousins (Minnesota)
With eight games where he earned less than 250 yards and seven contests with only a touchdown, Cousins' lack of consistency and a baker's mentality as a decision-maker limit his upside despite being blessed with a great pair of receivers. When he was the No.5 fantasy quarterback in 2017, Cousins had eight games with less than 250 yards passing and seven others with no more than a touchdown. In 2016, when Cousins threw for nearly 5,000 yards, he still had eight games with no more than a touchdown.
This isn't the kind of consistency you're seeking from a QB1 and if you let the better options pass during the rounds leading up to this selection, it's a riskier choice than it appears. If you're confident in the consistency in your high producers drafted during the first 8-9 rounds, Cousins could help you more than hurt you during the season.
During the fantasy playoffs, Cousins has been shaky. Since 2016, Cousins has thrown for one 300-yard game in 12 starts between Weeks 13-16 of the 2016-18 seasons. He's averaged 223 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, and 0.8 interceptions during these fantasy playoff periods.
In one sense, opponents figure out the offensive plan and Cousins lacks the antidote. No thanks.
However, Cousins often has strong play during the initial phases of the season and enough big weeks to carry a fantasy team with decent talent. If yours truly can pair him with a quarterback likely to out-perform his value—Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, or Philip Rivers—Cousins as a committee quarterback could be worthwhile for the first half of the year.
7. QB Josh Allen (Buffalo)
Yes, he produced as a QB1 down the stretch last year. He did a lot of it with his legs. He never threw for more than 235 yards in a game after Week 2, but he had four games with at least 95 rushing yards after Week 12.
Those lacking context with their statistics will tell you that leaning on Allen for his legs makes him a compelling fantasy QB2 for a committee where you can get the rushing upside. However, Allen performed in an offense that didn't design runs for him and that's an important distinction for the future.
Buffalo didn't use structured run concepts for Allen as Baltimore did with Lamar Jackson. The Bills essentially gave up on Allen consistently finding a receiver that wasn't his first option in the progression and let him scramble.
Structured runs are safer runs for a quarterback because the offensive line knows where the quarterback is going and their movements are designed to protect him. It also allows the quarterback to protect himself at the end of plays with greater frequency than scrambles—especially when many of these plays will end in the pocket as a sack or a tackle for a loss where the quarterback isn't in a protective position to handle the contact.
This year, the Bills expect Allen to find his second and third progressions with greater frequency. Unless the coaching staff changes its schematic tendencies we won't see designed option plays as a base part of the offense. Allen will either feel pressured to stay in the pocket and find his secondary receivers and develop as a passer or he'll take significant hits as he struggles from the pocket or breaks it on a scramble.
Not a wise runner during his career, the Gut Check fears the contact that Allen will take enhances his injury risk. Considering the availability of more proven talent with greater upside in the passing game later in the draft, an investment in Allen could be a foolish one this year.
However, the Bills have upgraded its receiving corps and Allen flashed moments during his college career that showed upside as a pocket passer. It's unlikely that we'll see evidence of him making a huge jump during the preseason, but yours truly is trying to be open to the possibility.
6. WR N'Keal Harry (New England)
A big receiver, NKeal Harry displayed good initial quickness as a ball carrier at Arizona State, but he often struggled to separate in the receiving game. This has been the case this spring in New England. Because Harry's ideal spot is the slot, one wonders if Harry can produce as an outside option.
When a slower receiver has initial difficulties playing fast enough to separate—and a portion of it could be processing new material slowly, which is common for rookies—that player earns "wait-and-see" status from this fantasy analyst for at least some of the preseason, if not the entire year.
When considering players with upside at this stage of the draft, there are a slew of quarterbacks and running backs with greater upside value. At receiver D.K. Metcalf has a much higher ceiling and even Emmanuel Sanders has a higher floor despite recovering from an Achilles' tear.
The Gut Check is waiting to see how Harry is getting used during practice and scrimmages and whether the struggles were more mental than physical.
5. RB Ronald Jones (Tampa Bay)
When a runner with excellent speed, acceleration, and change-of-direction quickness adds 13 pounds of muscle and still has these elite athletic traits, it forces you to take notice. Jones is earning preseason buzz from his coaches, the media, and former running backs like Terrell Davis.
Yours truly thought highly of Jones as a rookie prospect but shied away from him as soon as he began struggling in August. Jones displayed clear-cut issues and Peyton Barber had done nothing but improved his overall game despite working with a struggling offensive line.
While Barber remains the default starter—and fantasy owners should not discount him as a potential lead back with low-end RB2 upside—it would be foolish to write-off Jones at this stage of his career. A balanced approach of favoring Barber but monitoring Jones' progress with an open mind and a strategic plan is recommended.
You should be monitoring training camp reports to see if Jones has cut down on the egregious mistakes he was making last August—ball security, catching the football, and decisiveness between the tackles. If he has and he's consistently making plays big and small, it's time to consider Jones as part of a timeshare with Barber to begin the year.
It doesn't mean that Jones eventually earns the job ahead of Barber, or even maintains the role, but it's enough to take Jones seriously as a fantasy selection with every-down size and breakaway runner upside.
4. WR Courtland Sutton (Denver)
Broncos media is among the most guilty of getting high off athletic players during training camp. Sutton earned that buzz last year despite cornerback Chris Harris cautioning the public to maintain expectations. This year, we need to see if Sutton has become a more complete route runner and more importantly, a better technician with his hands when attacking the football.
If we continue hearing about drops, Sutton will be a scary option to draft when he's paired with a quarterback like Flacco. If much is made about Sutton refining his game, he'll have a nice shot of becoming a big-play option with high-volume upside.
3. TE Austin Hooper (Atlanta)
Although Hooper earned TE7 production last year, he's scored only 10 touchdowns during his first three seasons with the Falcons. The red zone is where the Gut Check thought Hooper would thrive.
Enter Dirk Koetter, a coach who has helped get the ball to fantasy TE1 targets like late-career Tony Gonzalez, Marcedes Lewis, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Last year, Koetter's offense only targeted his two starting tight ends 20 times in the red zone but they each earned touchdowns on half of those targets (10 total).
Brate had similar red-zone efficiency for the past two years. Considering that Hooper and Brate have similar athletic profiles and that Koetter's offense supported 16 touchdowns in two years from late-career Gonzalez in 2013-14, there's hope that Koetter can create efficient red-zone matchups for Hooper.
A tight end who excels at high-pointing the football but hasn't been used this way in Atlanta, Hooper has double-digit touchdown upside as a talent. Stay tuned for training camp to see if we're seeing strong hints of this production during August.
2. WR James Washington (Pittsburgh)
After some big preseason moments, Washington faded from view during the 2018 season. The big question for most is whether Washington has the speed to separate in the vertical game.
This has always been on the minds of those who've watched Washington since he was at Oklahoma State. He was a savvy route runner as a collegiate player but he lacked top-drawer speed.
Receivers can have success in the vertical game without elite long speed. They need to have excellent acceleration and/or a physical style of play in addition to immaculate route skills.
The Steelers must replace Antonio Brown and Washington will earn the first shot at the starting job. It wasn't long ago that Markus Wheaton was seen as the potential replacement for Emmanuel Sanders and it didn't work out.
Pittsburgh relegated Wheaton to routes that Ben Roethlisberger wasn't particularly great it, such as the intermediate and deep corner. If Washington earns a significant share of dig routes, post routes, and out routes—and consistently makes plays on these timing routes against tight coverage—it's a good sign that he's ready to emerge as a weekly threat.
If Washington earns the "Wheaton Routes" like corner routes and seams—and it appears Roethlisberger is air-mailing them—this is an uh-oh moment for Washington's prospects.
1.WR Antonio Brown (Oakland)
A great wide receiver, Brown is also known for his creativity as a route runner. Some of that creativity is within the timing and structure of traditional routes that don't require much adjustment from a quarterback, others are more demanding on the passer to go with the flow.
Brown has also proven temperamental. Even if Roethlisberger baited Brown into some of this behavior, we've seen and heard about the outcomes.
By all accounts, Derek Carr is a stable personality. The same isn't true of his quarterbacking.
As discussed in a forthcoming RSP Cast episode with fellow Footballguy Dwain McFarland where we project the Raiders offense, Carr has near-elite production and efficiency from a clean pocket but he's a mess under pressure. This hasn't changed since watching Carr fail the pocket management section of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio when he was at Fresno State.
Moreover, NBC Bay Area sportswriter Doug Williams noted in 2018 that Carr's red zone play "has deteriorated steadily every year since his rookie year."
Carr hasn't developed into a true franchise-caliber starter—even if going with a loose standard for the definition as a quarterback with production consistently among the top 12-15 passers in the league—and the issues remained the same. A potential invisible thread between Carr's struggles and the Gut Check's wait-and-see attitude with Brown is the fact that Carr only managed low-end top-15 production with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Cooper (now) and Crabtree (in his prime and even still prior to his drop-off in Baltimore) have been cited by players as two of the better route runners in the game. These are players who operate well in structure and make life more efficient for their quarterbacks.
We certainly saw Cooper help Dak Prescott midway through the 2018 season. However, if Cooper and Crabtree can't elevate Carr's game, it's worth wondering if Brown's more creative play and less-structured playing style will be a good fit for Carr, who is the exact opposite of Roethlisberger under pressure.
It's easy to imagine Brown melting down on the sideline after Carr can't find him in the red zone or a wide-open deep region of the field. While Brown earns strong stats in the Gut Check's projections this year, his confidence level in Brown does not match the data because of the potential anchor in Carr's game that can drag this passing game to the bottom of the East Bay.