Monthly Archives: June 2016
Cowboys Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 23rd (528)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 18th (408)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 29th (969)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 14th (5.5)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
Tony Romo has missed 14 games over the last four years. As shown in the RotoViz Game Splits App via this graphic tweeted by Jonathan Bales, the Cowboys have averaged 26.6 points per game with Romo in the lineup during that four-season span, and just 16.4 points without him. Dallas’ game-to-game point differential plummets from +2.3 to -8.1 with Romo on the shelf. Romo’s value is indisputable regardless of how you believe he’ll fare as a 2016 fantasy passer. With Romo back healthy and the Cowboys expected to resume a run-first, ball-control attack following the No. 4 overall selection of Ezekiel Elliott, the blueprint for Dallas’ offense figures to resemble 2014 form. That year, the Cowboys finished 31st in pass attempts and third in rushes. Romo led the NFL in completion rate (69.9%), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2), and touchdown rate (7.8%), yet still finished as a fringe fantasy starter (QB11). Romo will be 36 1/2 when the season starts, and his body has seemingly become increasingly brittle. In 12-team leagues, I don’t see Romo as worthy of draft consideration before the 11th or 12th round.
Dez Bryant‘s 2015 campaign was effectively lost when he suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in Week 1. Bryant rushed his rehab and returned in Week 8, only to lack effectiveness and suffer additional knee, foot, and ankle injuries that likely resulted from overcompensation. He appeared in nine games, topping 50 yards in just two of them. Dez underwent ankle surgery and another foot operation shortly after the season. Although he was cleared for football activities by early June, Bryant was babied along during OTAs/minicamp. Still squarely in his prime, Bryant will turn 28 in November and finished as a top-six WR1 in each of his previous three seasons. While drafting him requires a leap of faith, Bryant’s touchdown-scoring prowess is essentially unrivaled among NFL wide receivers. He’s a risky, if high-upside late first-round fantasy bet.
Terrance Williams enters his contract year coming off a season that was ruined partly by Romo’s 12 missed games, and partly by Williams’ own deficiences. A body catcher with slightly above average size (6’2/208) and just enough speed (4.52), Williams could generously be categorized as a passable starter, but is more realistically a low-end No. 2 NFL wideout. A complementary role player in Dallas’ run-first offense, Williams does have some field-stretching ability with a career 16.5 yards-per-reception average. He also flashed red-zone chops by scoring eight TDs in 2014, five of which occurred inside the opposing 20-yard line. While Williams’ re-draft outlook seems bleak, that could change if Romo stays healthy and Bryant encounters any setbacks. I like Williams at his cost in best-ball drafts. He usually lasts until the 15th and 16th rounds.
I have the Cowboys’ starting lineup listed above in a three-receiver set. They will use two tight ends on upwards of 40% of their plays, however, which means slot man Cole Beasley will be competing for snaps with No. 2 tight end James Hanna. A fifth-year UDFA, Beasley stands 5-foot-8, 175 and is purely a chain-moving possession receiver. Beasley did lead Dallas wideouts in catch rate (69.3%) last season and is an inviting target on high-percentage routes. He still played only 54.5% of the offensive snaps. With a situational role on a run-first team, Beasley would need multiple injuries ahead of him on the depth chart to have any chance at fantasy relevance. Even then, the Cowboys might turn to Brice Butler over Beasley to start out wide.
I’m not sure Jason Witten is commonly viewed as a certain future Hall of Famer. His resume screams first-ballot inductee. He is a ten-time Pro Bowler. He hasn’t missed a game in 12 years at one of football’s most violent and demanding positions, also finishing as a top-12 fantasy tight end in each of those seasons. Witten’s 1,020 catches rank tenth all time across all positions and second among tight ends behind Tony Gonzalez (1,325). In his prime, Witten was regarded as the NFL’s premier combination tight end and an elite blocker. With Kellen Moore, Brandon Weeden, and Matt Cassel at quarterback for most of last season, Witten was charged with zero drops on 100 targets by PFF. At age 34, I think we can agree Witten is a low-ceiling fantasy commodity. His red-zone role isn’t what it once was, and even with Romo under center in 2014, Witten managed a modest 64-703-5 stat line. Witten has topped 70 receiving yards just twice over the last two seasons. Because Witten stays healthy, he will probably turn in another top-12 tight end finish. In fantasy leagues, Witten is best viewed as a re-draft streamer option and part of a three-pronged tight end committee in best ball. Witten has had an incredible career. He is now a replacement-level fantasy tight end.
Running Game Outlook
Despite desperate needs on defense, the Cowboys pulled the trigger on Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4 overall, presumably with the realization that Romo’s “window” is shrinking and he played his best football on a run-dominated 2014 team. Elliott wrapped his Ohio State career with 3,961 yards and 43 TDs on 592 carries (6.69 YPC), adding 58 receptions and dominating college front sevens as the nation’s premier pass-blocking back. A fiery, competitive runner who possesses 4.47 speed with elite balance and consistently low pad level, Elliott is a ready-made three-down NFL workhorse. With Darren McFadden as their lead runner and no real passing-game threat, last year’s Cowboys ranked No. 5 in rushing efficiency (4.63 YPC) and No. 9 in Football Outsiders’ run-game DVOA. Dallas’ offensive line is the best in the league by a considerable margin. The Cowboys’ (overly?) aggressive selection of Elliott indicates they won’t concern themselves with “easing him in.” Additionally, game flow will greatly benefit Elliott versus the NFL’s softest schedule based on opponents’ Vegas Win Totals. It isn’t a stretch to say Elliott has the talent, opportunity, and situation to lead all running backs in fantasy points as a rookie.
Another reason to be bullish on Elliott’s first-year outlook is Darren McFadden‘s broken elbow, which will shelve McFadden until at least the middle of August. Elliott opened OTAs working with the Cowboys’ second-team offense, but he will now dominate first-team reps in training camp. As a far more versatile back than Alfred Morris, McFadden remains the favorite to operate as Elliott’s primary handcuff. McFadden’s year in the system gives him another leg up. Signed to a cheap, two-year, $3.5 million deal in free agency, Alf is third-string insurance.
2016 Vegas Win Total
Despite last year’s injury-induced 4-12 finish, the Cowboys’ Win Total is nine games, tied with Kansas City and Minnesota for ninth highest in the league. As alluded to above, Dallas’ defensive personnel is a major concern. At the same time, we’ve seen them compensate for talent voids on defense by playing ball-control offense with the goal of slowing down game pace and chewing clock. In their banner 2014 season, the Cowboys led the NFL in time of possession and their defense played the NFL’s eighth fewest snaps. If you believe Dallas can recreate its 2014 success against a cakewalk schedule with Romo and Dez returning, take the over on nine wins. Assuming Romo gets improved injury luck, I am of the belief they can.
It’s been a busy few weeks for me. On second thought, busy might be an understatement. In that span, I’ve been to two weddings and a bachelor party, moved to New York City and contributed three articles to this year’s Rotoworld draft guide (look out for the kicker profiles). Much Red Bull was consumed during this period. That helped me get through some of the more exhausting stretches but now that my month of insanity is coming to a close, all I want to do is take a nap.
Luckily, this is the quietest time of the year in the NFL. With OTAs wrapped up and training camp still over a month away, there isn’t much to do now except enjoy the weather and go to the Cavaliers’ victory parade.
Of course, it’s a little harder to enjoy the time off when you don’t have a team to play for. Arian Foster is hoping that changes quickly. The veteran running back hasn’t found a home yet but the search isn’t over.
According to an ESPN report, Foster is “hungry” to regain his 2012 form and expects to be ready for training camp. Remember, Foster is only eight months removed from a devastating torn Achilles. Before his injury last year, Foster was averaging only 2.6 yards per carry, a career low. The 29-year-old has rushed for over 1,000 yards four times but has only played a full 16-game slate twice in seven seasons.
Foster’s continued unemployment is a bit surprising. We know the drawbacks—he’s 29, a notoriously slow healer and coming off a career-worst season. That’s three strikes right there. But Foster produced a solid 2014 campaign (1,246 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 4.8 yards per carry) and has been one of the league’s premier running backs when healthy. He’s a true three-down back with capable hands (2,268 receiving yards in seven seasons) and a nose for the end zone (68 career touchdowns).
So where would be the ideal landing spot for Foster? I have a few suggestions. The Dolphins, one of the few teams that have shown legitimate interest in Foster this offseason, make plenty of sense. Frustrated from years of underuse, Lamar Miller left Miami to join the Texans this offseason, assuming the workhorse role that was once Foster’s. After Miller abandoned ship, the Dolphins flirted with Chris Johnson and C.J. Anderson with the latter agreeing to a four-year offer sheet worth $18 million. Neither player ended up signing with the Dolphins—CJ2K returned to the Cardinals on a one-year deal while Denver held onto Anderson by matching the Dolphins’ offer sheet.
Miami added Alabama running back Kenyan Drake in the draft but he’s only a third-down/change-of-pace option. Even at Alabama, Drake was never higher than No. 2 on the team’s depth chart. That leaves the early-down chores to second-year back Jay Ajayi. The 23-year-old contributed 3.8 yards per carry during an injury-shortened rookie year. Ajayi was a three-down back in college and head coach Adam Gase still envisions him as one. However, Ajayi has dropped too many passes at OTAs and is struggling to grasp the complexities of Gase’s route tree. Behind the unproven duo of Ajayi and Drake are undrafted 24-year-old Damien Williams, journeyman Isaiah Pead and underachiever Daniel Thomas. It’s not a group that inspires much confidence, particularly in the AFC East where three of the four teams finished .500 or better last year. Maybe GM Chris Grier should give Foster a call.
The Redskins are in a similar predicament. Second-year back Matt Jones will be taking over the reigns from Alfred Morris, who joined the division-rival Cowboys in free agency. Jones’ rookie year was full of peaks and valleys. He led the team with three rushing touchdowns (obviously the Redskins weren’t among the league leaders in that statistic) and delivered a breakout 123-yard performance against the Rams in his second NFL game. Jones was also a productive pass-catcher with 304 yards on 19 catches. Unfortunately those positive contributions were drowned out by a long list of shortcomings. Jones was injury-prone in year one (three missed games) and couldn’t hold onto the football (four lost fumbles). He didn’t create much separation either, logging just 3.4 yards per carry on 144 attempts.
Aside from having Chris Thompson to spell Jones on third downs, the Redskins’ cupboard is pretty bare at running back. Former practice-squadder Mack Brown and seventh-round pick Keith Marshall are currently jockeying for the No. 3 position on Washington’s depth chart. Foster would be a big improvement for this unconvincing group.
The Patriots are another team that should be banging down Foster’s door. New England’s complete lack of a running game was the team’s ultimate undoing against Denver in the AFC Championship. Led by a group of misfits highlighted by special teamer Brandon Bolden and over-the-hill veteran Steven Jackson, the Pats earned just 44 yards on 17 attempts (2.59 yards per carry) in the team’s season-ending loss.
Obviously the team was without its two best rushers—LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis were both hurt—but New England’s running game still leaves much to be desired. Like Foster, Blount is 29 and coming off a major injury. Lewis was a great discovery by Bill Belichick but he’ll likely be limited to passing-down work. The 25-year-old tallied 36 catches for 388 yards in seven games last season but only recorded double-digit carries in one of those contests. James White is a lesser version of Lewis while Donald Brown’s career is on its last leg.
The Patriots have gotten by with a makeshift running game before—six different players have led the team in rushing over the last eight seasons. But a consistent ground presence probably wouldn’t hurt their chances of lifting the Lombardi Trophy for a fifth time. The running game will take on even greater importance if Tom Brady’s four-game suspension is upheld. If Foster’s goal is to win a title, something he never accomplished in Houston, signing with New England should be at the top of his wish list.
Fantasy owners are accustomed to Foster playing an every-down role but those days are probably over. Unless an injury arises, Foster will probably be headed for backup duty or at best a timeshare with another back. That does little to help fantasy owners but a lighter workload might be what’s best for Foster at this point in his career. Who knows, maybe getting fewer carries will help Foster stay healthy for once. If Ryan Fitzpatrick is the top quarterback on the market, Foster is far and away the most enticing running back left in free agency. Expect him to sign before Week 1, if not prior to training camp.
Quick Hits: Free agent Charles Tillman is open to playing another season, but under one condition: he’ll only play for Carolina. Tillman missed the Panthers’ postseason run last year after suffering a torn ACL in Week 17 … Last week Panthers left tackle Michael Oher agreed to a three-year, $21.6 million contract extension through 2019. That deal includes $9.5 million guaranteed. Oher was a top-15 pass blocker last year but was one of the league’s worst run blockers … According to the Charlotte Observer, reigning MVP Cam Newton didn’t look “particularly sharp” at OTAs. Newton is understandably rusty after a busy offseason that included a trip to the White House and filming a show for Nickelodeon … The Panthers rewarded head coach Ron Rivera with a one-year extension last week. He’s now under contract through 2018 … Chiefs coach Andy Reid says Jamaal Charles might not be cleared for the start of training camp. Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West filled in for Charles after he tore his ACL in Week 5 last season … Broncos team reporter Andrew Mason believes Ronnie Hillman has the “inside track” to the backup running back job. He’ll be competing with fourth-round pick Devontae Booker. C.J. Anderson is penciled in as the starter … When the Broncos handed out their championship rings last week, Wade Phillips’ ring read “Peters” instead of Phillips. The Broncos gave him a new ring with the right name on it but I’m wondering if he gets to keep the misprint. That could be worth some money … ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon says Robert Griffin III didn’t have any “wow” moments this offseason. Head coach Hue Jackson agreed that Griffin is still “mastering the quarterback position.” It could be a long year in Cleveland … Terrance West is taking advantage of his fresh start in Baltimore. Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun says West looks “leaner and more explosive” after shedding 15 pounds this offseason. The Ravens have a crowded backfield with Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Kenneth Dixon, Trent Richardson and Buck Allen all competing for roles … Speaking of Trent Richardson, the former No. 3 overall pick needs arthroscopic knee surgery. That won’t help T-Rich’s already slim chances of making the Ravens’ 53-man roster … Joe Flacco is hoping to be ready for the first day of training camp. Flacco missed the final six games of 2015 with a torn ACL. Before that, he had never missed a game in his eight-year career … Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey reportedly underwent six surgeries and a skin graft after breaking his leg last offseason. Incredibly, he’s back to full health and didn’t take any days off during OTAs … Seahawks coach Pete Carroll expects Thomas Rawls and Jimmy Graham to both be ready for Week 1 against Miami. Rawls is coming off a broken ankle while Graham is recovering from a torn patellar tendon … No. 3 overall Joey Bosa remains unsigned. Apparently the Ohio State product is grappling with the Chargers over contract language … Dez Bryant (foot) wasn’t on the field for team drills during OTAs. To make up for lost time, he and Tony Romo plan to work out together before training camp opens next month … ESPN 49ers reporter Michael Wagaman says Shaun Draughn will see “plenty of playing time this year” as the team’s passing-down back. Power back Carlos Hyde will still command work on early downs … Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune called Charles Johnson “the receiver who popped out most during spring workouts.” Johnson was arguably fantasy’s biggest bust last year, reeling in just nine catches for 127 yards. He was a healthy scratch three times … Sammy Watkins plans to be ready early on in training camp after undergoing foot surgery last month. Instead of returning to his native Florida, Watkins will stay in Buffalo this summer to continue his rehab … The Ryan brothers are a national treasure. But just in case you weren’t totally convinced, here’s a photo of Rob and Rex sharing a tandem bicycle for your enjoyment.
Browns Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 11th (609)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 27th (380)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 14th (1,042)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 28th (5.1)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
The last time we saw Robert Griffin III play football, he was a broken, fundamentally-flawed deer in headlights. Over his last 16 games, RG3 has a 12:12 TD-to-INT ratio and has taken an absurd 60 sacks. Following his March 7 release from the Redskins, Browns coach Hue Jackson signed off on RG3 as a reclamation project when, in Jackson’s words, “the Earth moved beneath my feet” after watching Griffin “roll out in a full sprint to throw a pass.” OTA/minicamp reports weren’t as rosy, with Browns beat writers stating RG3’s practices were erratic and uneven, while Jackson acknowledged Griffin is still working to “master the quarterback position.” Griffin will try to hold off scrappy 37-year-old Josh McCown and noodle-armed third-round pick Cody Kessler for the Browns’ starting job. Griffin possesses the highest ceiling in the group, but the odds are favorable that McCown would give Cleveland its best chance to win.
The 15th pick in the draft and first receiver taken, Corey Coleman earned the 2015 Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top wideout, finishing his three-year Baylor career with a 173-3,009-33 receiving line and averaging 17.4 yards per catch. Coleman blazed 4.40 at the Bears’ Pro Day after posting a 40 1/2-inch vertical and 10-foot-9 broad jump at the Combine, all good for a 94th-percentile SPARQ athleticism score. Coleman has some Odell Beckham to his game, capable of outrunning coverage and outplaying everyone on the field, which Coleman did routinely in the Big 12. Coleman offers instant impact fantasy potential as the likely offensive focal point on a bad Browns team that will spend 2016 playing from behind. Cleveland’s roster has 241 unaccounted-for targets from last year. The vast majority should funnel to Coleman, who is set up well to return value at his seventh-/eighth-round ADP.
The Browns’ second receiver job is up for grabs. The list of contenders is long, including rookie draft picks Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and Rashard Higgins, veteran slot man Andrew Hawkins, diminutive third-year speedster Taylor Gabriel, and intriguing ex-QB Terrelle Pryor. While this competition will be worth monitoring in preseason games, it is an unlikely source of fantasy value. Coleman, Gary Barnidge, and space back Duke Johnson are in the driver’s seat for targets. My early pick to rank fourth on the team is 30-year-old Hawkins, who is familiar with Hue Jackson after they spent two seasons together (2012-13) with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Gary Barnidge was an alluring physical specimen long before his unforeseen 2015 breakout. (He is essentially what we hope Ladarius Green becomes this year in Pittsburgh.) At 6-foot-6 and 243 pounds, Barnidge clocked an impressive 4.65 forty coming out of Louisville in the 2008 draft after averaging nearly 14 yards per reception in his college career. Finally given a legitimate chance at a featured receiving role at age 30 in his eighth NFL season, Barnidge parlayed the league’s second most tight end targets (125) into an overall TE2 finish in non-PPR scoring. Only Jordan Reed, Rob Gronkowski, and Delanie Walker outscored Barnidge in PPR points per game. For a player whose targets seem unlikely to regress considering Cleveland’s shortage of proven pass-catching alternatives, Barnidge’s eighth-/ninth-round Average Draft Position appears quite reasonable. 2016 Barnidge drafters should pull for Josh McCown to get the nod at quarterback. Barnidge’s 16-game receiving pace was 92-1,282-12 in McCown’s eight starts last year. Barnidge’s pace dipped to 66-804-4 with Cleveland’s other quarterbacks.
Running Game Outlook
The 77th overall pick in last year’s draft, Duke Johnson was quick to carve out a significant role in the Browns’ 2015 offense. Although he averaged just 3.64 yards per carry, Johnson piled up the eighth most single-season receptions by a running back in league history, out-snapped “starter” Isaiah Crowell 568 to 483, and ranked No. 6 in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating among 52 qualifed backs. Johnson’s college resume suggests he is capable of handling bigger workloads as he matures. He was a workhorse as a junior at Miami (FL), posting a superbly efficient 6.83 YPC average on 18.6 carries per game. Beat writers have suggested new coach Hue Jackson envisions Johnson as an “every-down back,” while the strong likelihood Cleveland spends 2016 playing catch-up gives him immense PPR appeal. If Johnson stays healthy, he should vie for the NFL lead in running back targets and catches. Limitations on Johnson’s upside stem from a low touchdown projection and the possibility he maxes out as a change-of-pace/passing-down back.
Whereas Johnson’s ADP has already reached the fifth round, projected starter Isaiah Crowell usually lasts until the ninth through eleventh. Crowell is a viable dart throw there under a run-first coach. As noted by Rotoworld’s Ray Summerlin, Hue Jackson‘s offenses have ranked top seven in rushing attempts and rushing TDs in each of his last four seasons as a head coach or coordinator. They’ve finished top seven in rushing yards in three of those four years. Crowell’s first two NFL seasons have been pedestrian (3.94 YPC, only 28 receptions), but he is probably the best interior runner on a Browns team that did nothing to upgrade at running back. Because Crowell has an outside shot to finish with 200 carries, he’s a decent bet to outscore his Average Draft Position and become a usable RB2/flex in bye-week crunches.
2016 Vegas Win Total
In full-on rebuild mode, the new analytics-minded Browns regime emerged from April’s NFL draft with 14 selected players, the Eagles’ 2017 first-round pick, the Titans’ 2017 second-round pick, and the Eagles’ 2018 second-rounder. Although I am buying Cleveland’s long-term process, the current roster has the least proven talent in football and I’m not fully convinced the Browns’ in-season priority will be winning. Their Vegas Win Total sits at 4.5 — lowest in the NFL — and Cleveland is an underdog in each of its first 15 games. The total is too low for a serious wager because it wouldn’t be surprising if the Browns essentially lucked their way into five or six wins. I’m still taking the under in this space. Cleveland’s schedule is by no means easy, and strictly from a personnel standpoint, the Browns have all the appearances of a 0-4 win team.
We’ve already looked at some play calling splits in relation to game script and their potential relation to 2016 output and rolled that thought process over in diagnosing the fantasy fallout from the direct relationship that the Eagles, 49ers and Chiefs share with their head coaching changes. Continuing that trend, here are a few general notes on red zone production from the 2015 season that were major outliers for individual player and team production.
Starting off on the low end for team output, the Rams ran just 84 offensive plays inside the red zone in 2015, a mark that was the 8th lowest total in a season for a team since 1999. The average amount of plays run in the red zone for any team per season over that span is 140 plays and was 139 plays in 2015. The Rams ran just 40 total pass plays in the red zone for the entire season while in comparison; Blake Bortles threw 51 passes inside of the 10-yard line last season.
The Rams were the 27th team in that gap to run fewer than 100 plays in the red zone for a season. In the following season, every one of those teams ran more plays in the red zone with an average increase of 41 more red zone snaps per season and 7.8 more team touchdowns scored on the season while only one of those teams have gone back to back seasons with double digit red zone snaps and it was the expansion Cleveland Browns in 1999 and 2000. No matter what we feel about their personnel and coaching philosophy, the Rams are a good blind faith bet to have more scoring opportunities and more touchdowns this season than they had in 2015. That’s relevant because despite that futility in reaching the primary scoring zone last season, Todd Gurley still managed to score 10 touchdowns on the season (with only one of those outside of the red zone).
In terms of red zone success, you might be surprised to find out that the Detroit Lions had a historically effective season scoring in the red zone. Detroit scored a touchdown on 69.4 percent of their red zone possessions, good for the 7th highest mark over the past 13 seasons for teams that reached the red zone at east three times or per game. Detroit scored a touchdown on 27.2 percent of their red zone plays, the 5th highest total over that same timeframe. Teams that reached the red zone three or more times per game while scoring on 65 percent or more of those possessions averaged a 58.1 red zone touchdown rate the following season while teams scoring on 25 percent or more of their red zone plays scored on average 7.7 fewer offensive touchdowns the following year.
That’s not where it ends for Detroit, either. It would be one thing in saying Detroit just wasn’t going to be as efficient with their short scoring opportunities, but it’s another thing when you realize that they were completely dependent on those short scores in producing their point totals. Out of their 40 touchdowns on the season, 34 came in the red zone. That 85 percent dependency on red zone touchdown production is the 16th highest of the past 385 individual team seasons in which a team scored 30 or more touchdowns. Of the 15 teams ahead of them, all but two scored fewer red zone touchdowns the following season with an average loss of 7.9 scores the following season.
So we know that the Lions were reliant on generating short scores to provide all of their point totals. That’s problematic if Detroit sees any decrease in reaching the red zone and even if they are able to roll over the same amount of scoring opportunities from a year ago, natural average regression suggests they’ll score five to eight fewer touchdowns in 2016. While a half of touchdown per game loss doesn’t feel like much broken down, a loss of eight scores would move them from a team in the top third in touchdown output to a team in the bottom third.
Detroit only had seven rushing touchdowns on the season, so the primary beneficiary from all of those short touchdowns was Matt Stafford. He threw 21 passing touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in, tied with Blake Bortles for the league lead. That’s a total which also is the tied for the 10th highest mark in a season since 2000. Stafford averaged just 9.8 yards per touchdown pass, a mark only higher than Matt Hasselbeck (6.6) and Ryan Mallett (6.0) last season. We’ve seen Stafford have an outlier type passing touchdown season before in 2011, but what he did near the goal line last season was extremely over the bar he had set for his career prior.
Calvin Johnson accounted for five of those scores, but the main recipient of those targets and touchdowns was Golden Tate. Tate caught 10 of 11 targets there for all six of his touchdowns on the season. His 3.5 yards per touchdown receptions was the lowest in the NFL for all wide receivers or tight ends with five or more touchdown receptions. The transition to Jim Bob Cooter draws a lot of credit for both Stafford and Tate as Tate frequently scored off of rub routes near the goal line. The coaching change midseason made an impact, but that narrative likely masked a major shift in strength in competition for the Lions in relation to fantasy production to a degree. Tate has yet to prove himself as an elite touchdown producer in the NFL, scoring on more than nine percent of his receptions just once in an NFL season. If any of the short scoring opportunities are compromised as suggested above, he’s going to have to find a way to find the paint on his own merit more often than he’s shown in his career thus far.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2015 Buffalo Bills completely bypassed the red zone with almost unprecedented regularity compared to their total touchdown output. Just 45.2 percent (19 of 42) of their offensive touchdowns came from reaching the red zone, the second lowest total for any team in a season since 1999.
That in itself helps explain the lowly target totals that Sammy Watkins had near the end zone. Watkins had just seven targets in the red zone on the season, with just four from the 10-yard and in as he scored eight of his nine touchdowns on the season from 20 yards out or longer.
There’s reason to believe that we see an uptick there as teams that scored fewer than 55 percent of their touchdowns in the red zone have come back the following season and seen their red zone play totals increased on average 30 percent and their red zone touchdown total increase 46 percent (with a seven percent increase in total touchdowns scored overall).
The issue here is that even with another 35 more plays in the red zone, if the Bills maintain a similar rate of 61/39 percent of run versus the pass in those situations; we’re only looking at another 15 or so more pass attempts. Watkins will need to see a noticeable improvement on his 16.3 percent target market share in the red zone to bolster his touchdown totals from strictly being reliant on big plays, but more touchdowns for the Bills offense as whole is a good thing for Watkins, barring that he’s on the field to start the season as he recovers from foot surgery.
Speaking of needing to see an uptick in red zone usage, Amari Cooper was questionably missing from the Raiders’ plans the closer they got to the goal line. Cooper had just eight red zone targets on the season, trailing both Seth Roberts (10) and Michael Crabtree (13) with zero of those looks coming from inside the 10-yard line out of the 22 targets dished out to the Raiders players. Cooper was forced to lean on splash plays as he averaged 34.3 yards per touchdown reception, the 6th highest total for all receivers with five or more scores on the season. It seems odd that the Raiders would continue to freeze out their best offensive player when calling plays to generate touchdowns, but his ceiling is in question if that lack of usage is something that rolls over.
Bengals Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 26th (505)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 7th (467)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 25th (1,004)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 7th (5.7)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
Andy Dalton‘s fantasy points-per-game finishes the past three seasons are QB5, QB25, and QB7. A limited talent who is only as effective as the players around him, Dalton’s 2014 outlier year came about as pass-catching studs A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard combined to miss 37 games, forcing gadget receiver Mohamed Sanu into a featured role. With Jones (Lions) and Sanu (Falcons) gone and Eifert’s (ankle) Week 1 availability in serious doubt, Dalton’s 2016 supporting cast may more closely resemble its 2014 version. The loss of creative playcaller Hue Jackson is another potential concern. Dalton’s Average Draft Position is in the 10th and 11th rounds, where he is typically selected before Tyrod Taylor, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, and Joe Flacco. Save Taylor and Stafford, Dalton outscored all of them by a significant distance last season. I am increasingly skeptical Dalton will repeat.
A.J. Green‘s 2016 outlook reminds me a lot of Julio Jones‘ entering 2015. With very few target-commanding alternatives in the pass-catcher corps, the writing is on the wall for an extreme-volume season. Although he is not always viewed in similar ilk to Julio, Odell Beckham, and Antonio Brown, Green does boast three top-eight WR1 finishes through five NFL seasons with two in the top four (2012, 2013). Per Adam Levitan, Green’s career yards-per-target average (8.74) is 14th best in NFL history. Not yet 28 years old, Green is squarely in his prime and remarkably durable, missing just four games over the last half decade. Green is my WR4 in fantasy drafts this year. I think he warrants serious consideration as a top-five overall pick.
Following an injury-ruined, drop-filled nightmare season in New England, Brandon LaFell landed a bargain-basement one-year, $2.5 million deal from the Bengals and is penciled in as Jones’ Z receiver replacement. Jones and Sanu’s exits leave behind 152 unaccounted-for targets, while Eifert’s combination injury history/current injury further enhance LaFell’s opportunity. Turning 30 in November, LaFell is a replacement-level talent or slightly better, but he did post a top-25 fantasy receiver season as recently as 2014 and has a realistic shot at 100 targets in Cincinnati. Understandably written off by most of the fantasy community, LaFell is an intriguing deep-league fantasy pick. He usually lasts until the 17th through 20th rounds of best-ball drafts.
Stationed at the No. 24 overall pick, the Bengals’ draft room had to be overcome with frustration as Will Fuller (21), Josh Doctson (22), and Laquon Treadwell (23) all went off the board consecutively in front of them, forcing Cincinnati to settle for Houston CB William Jackson III in the first round. The Bengals circled back in round two, using the 55th overall selection on Tyler Boyd, a 34th-percentile SPARQ athlete who rewrote the Pitt Panthers’ receiving record books but may lack requisite physical tools to function outside. The Bengals view Boyd as a slot receiver who will have to win by becoming a “technician” inside the numbers. The team has billed Boyd as its replacement for Sanu, who commanded just 49 targets last season. While Boyd’s elite college production suggests his prospects may be being undersold, no one covering the Bengals expects him to open his rookie year ahead of LaFell. Boyd is a better Dynasty hold than re-draft pick.
Finally staying upright for the majority of a season, Tyler Eifert finished his breakout third-year campaign 20th among tight ends in targets (74), 16th in receptions (52), and 12th in yards (615) but first in touchdown catches (13), vaulting Eifert to an overall TE6 finish and TE3 in fantasy points per game. Already destined for TD-scoring regression, Eifert required late-May ankle surgery stemming from an injury in the Pro Bowl game. Shortly after the procedure, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Eifert could miss “the first couple games of the season,” and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey predicted in mid-June that Eifert would not be ready for Week 1. The uncertainty involving Eifert’s timeline renders him a difficult tight end to rank. We know Eifert is a difference maker when healthy, but he’s missed 19 games through three NFL seasons and seems poised to miss more. At this point, I’m unwilling to draft Eifert before round eight.
Running Game Outlook
Whereas the rest of Cincinnati’s offense turned in prolific 2015 campaigns, Jeremy Hill sank from one of the NFL’s brightest young stars into a plodding, inefficient two-down grinder whose weekly fantasy production was entirely touchdown dependent. Biggest to blame was Hill’s inability to beat the first defender; his 2.29 yards-after-contact average ranked fourth best in the NFL in 2014, but dipped to 1.46 as a sophomore, fourth worst among 47 qualified backs. Hill’s confidence seemed to wane as the Bengals built their offense around a shotgun-based passing attack far better suited for RBBC partner Bernard’s strengths. Hill finished as the overall RB13 on the strength of a league-high 11 rushing touchdowns, but his yards-per-carry average dropped by a yard and a half and his passing-game role was virtually nonexistent (19 targets). The cost to bet on a Hill bounce-back season is a fifth- to sixth-round pick. I can understand that non-PPR leagues. In PPR, I’m targeting backs with much bigger receiving roles.
One of fantasy’s biggest 2014 busts, Giovani Bernard rebounded last season with career highs in rushing yards (730), yards per carry (4.74), and yards per catch (9.6). He finished No. 14 among 52 qualified backs in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating and deservedly out-snapped Hill 628 to 508. While Gio’s on-field performance and efficiency metrics impressed, his fantasy impact continued to underwhelm. Bernard’s RB35 finish in non-PPR points per game was actually a career low, while he cleared 15 PPR points in only 3-of-16 games. Gio simply doesn’t score touchdowns, which renders him nothing more than a weekly flex option regardless of fantasy format. He managed four carries inside opposing five-yard lines compared to Hill’s 16, and has hit pay dirt just twice over his last 18 games. Through three NFL seasons, it’s become clear Gio is a better player in real life than fantasy. This year, Bernard is being drafted in the sixth and seventh rounds. It’s an aggressive slot for a player with such a low ceiling. A similarly-used back like Bilal Powell could easily outscore Bernard and can be acquired several rounds later.
2016 Vegas Win Total
When their Win Total was 8.5 at this time last year, the Bengals were my favorite over bet in the entire NFL. Cincinnati’s Win Total is up to 9.5, tied with Arizona and Denver for sixth best in the league. Concerns include injuries and free-agent losses in the pass-catcher corps, difference-maker WLB Vontaze Burfict‘s three-game suspension, and a secondary that lost still-effective leaders Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall. I also think Dalton will take a step back. As the Burfict-less Bengals open at the Jets and Steelers before hosting the Broncos in Weeks 1-3, it wouldn’t shock me if they started 0-3. They visit Dallas and New England in Weeks 5-6. Because I think the Bengals are more likely to win 8-9 games than 10-11, I’m hesitantly taking the under on 9.5.
Bears Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 25th (523)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 6th (468)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 18th (1,025)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 21st (5.4)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
After working feverishly to trade him all offseason, the Bears’ new regime accepted Jay Cutler as its 2015 starter and proceeded to turn him into a game manager. Chicago’s need to play run-first football was enhanced by Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White, Martellus Bennett, and Eddie Royal‘s 35 combined missed games. Although Cutler had one of his most efficient seasons by most metrics, he finished 21st in raw quarterback points and 25th in fantasy points per game. Now 33 years old and with his sixth different offensive coordinator since 2009, Cutler has ranked as a top-ten fantasy passer just once in his career (2008) and has gone seven straight years without finishing top 12. With playmakers Jeffery, White, and Royal back and a lot of system carryover transitioning from Adam Gase to close Cutler pal Dowell Loggains, will Chicago consider opening up its offense? As Cutler’s ADP sits in the 14th round, I think it’s worth the cost to find out.
Alshon Jeffery turned in back-to-back 16-game seasons in 2013 and 2014 before enduring an injury-riddled 2015 contract year. It began with a calf strain suffered midway through training camp that led to an early-season hamstring injury and a midseason groin pull. While the rash of hard-luck injuries cost Jeffery seven games, he maintained elite effectiveness when active, scoring a touchdown and/or topping 75 yards in 8-of-9 appearances and finishing as the WR11 in PPR points per game. Still only 26 years old, Jeffery enters another contract season wearing the franchise tag. Jeffery seems to believe the new Bears regime’s institution of a revised program designed to limit soft-tissue injuries may have played a role in his sudden inability to stay healthy. Jeffery thus limited his exposure this offseason, staying away from voluntary OTAs. Cut safety Antrel Rolle has suggested poor practice field conditions at Halas Hall were to blame. Either way, Jeffery has a 95-1,314-11 receiving line over his last 16 games and a ton to play for this season. Jeffery is worth consideration anywhere in the second round of fantasy drafts.
Another victim of bad injury luck, 2015 first-round pick Kevin White missed his entire rookie campaign with a stress fracture in his shin suffered last June. White stated this May that he’d felt 100 percent “for months” and participated fully in the offseason program. Commonly compared to Terrell Owens coming out of college, and to Andre Johnson by Bears WRs coach Curtis Johnson, White blazed 4.35 at last year’s Combine after weighing in at 6-foot-3, 215. On college tape, White was a ferocious post-catch tackle breaker who dominated on 50:50 balls and dropped just 5-of-163 targets in his final season at West Virginia. His talent and potential are no secret to fantasy drafters, who are willing to take White in the sixth and seventh rounds. I like White’s chances of flirting with WR3 value and offering WR1 upside if Jeffery goes down. Still, using high picks on players who’ve never played an NFL snap is always risky business.
Signed to a three-year, $15 million deal by Bears GM Ryan Pace last offseason, Eddie Royal was ticketed for slot duties before back, hip, ankle, and knee injuries kept him out of seven games and limited his effectiveness in others. Royal was one of the NFL’s best slot receivers the year before in San Diego, ranking 16th among 110 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ catch-rate metric (72.1%), top 20 in yards-after-catch per reception (5.9), and as the overall fantasy WR30 despite finishing 55th in targets. Now 30 years old, Royal’s fantasy outlook is diminished by White and Jeffery’s return to health and what will probably remain a run-first offense with Cutler being managed and controlled. Royal is still a name to keep in mind, especially at his undrafted ADP.
An ex-college quarterback and 2009 sixth-round pick of the Jaguars, Zach Miller beat long odds to make the Bears’ 2015 roster behind Martellus Bennett after spending all of 2012-2014 out of football. As Bennett battled broken ribs and clashed with Chicago’s coaching staff, Miller made the most of his opportunities, putting up top-five PPR tight end stats in Weeks 10-16 before missing the final regular season game with a toe injury. The Bears traded Bennett and re-signed Miller to a two-year, $6 million deal. Although he certainly has a shot at 2016 fantasy relevance, keep in mind Miller’s 2015 hot run occurred sans White, and with Jeffery and Royal in and out of the lineup. I’m not willing to bet Miller will see enough targets to become a reliable TE1.
Running Game Outlook
A 2015 fourth-round pick out of Michigan State, Jeremy Langford emerged as the 1B back to Matt Forte‘s 1A as a rookie, passing Ka’Deem Carey on the depth chart and forming a near-even timeshare with Forte down the stretch. Langford worked as Chicago’s feature back in Forte’s three missed games, finishing as the PPR RB4 in Week 9 at San Diego, RB1 in Week 10 at St. Louis, and RB19 versus Denver in Week 11. While opportunity-chasing DFS players recall his rookie year fondly, Langford’s overall play wasn’t quite as promising. He averaged 3.63 yards per carry, led all running backs in drops (8), and ranked 59th among 68 qualified backs in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking ratings. With Forte out of the picture, Chicago beat writers expect Langford to get the first crack at the Bears’ lead back role, for which he’ll vie with fifth-round power runner Jordan Howard and holdover Carey. A wildcard fantasy pick, Langford’s ADP is all over the map. He goes in round four in some drafts and lasts until the late sixth in others.
Jordan Howard succeeded Tevin Coleman as the Indiana Hoosiers’ bellcow back last season, averaging 6.2 YPC with nine touchdowns after transferring from now-defunct UAB. Howard stands 6-foot, 230 and ran 4.59 at the IU Pro Day. On game tape, Howard was a straight-linish, downhill power back who ran with velocity and a bruising style between the tackles, but managed 24 receptions in his three-year college career. OC Dowell Loggains referred to Howard as a “change-of-pace” back at rookie minicamp. Howard’s shortage of receiving involvement at the college level seemingly caps his long-term fantasy upside, but he could threaten Langford’s early-down carries and projects as a superior option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. In order to get there, Howard will need to outplay coaches pet Ka’Deem Carey this preseason.
2016 Vegas Win Total
Coming off a 6-10 debut year under Ryan Pace and John Fox, the Bears moved forward with an aggressive year-two offseason plan. They poured resources into DC Vic Fangio‘s defense and quietly have the makings of a disruptive front seven with Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at inside linebacker, space eaters on the line, and a deep edge-rush rotation keyed by Pernell McPhee, first-round pick Leonard Floyd, and veterans Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. The offense could take a big step forward with better injury luck. The schedule is soft, particularly after a Week 9 bye. Chicago’s Vegas Win Total is only 6.5 games, tied with Tampa Bay for fifth lowest in football. While I don’t anticipate the Bears coming anywhere near the NFC North crown, they are one of my favorite over bets as a team that could easily bang out 7-9 wins.
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