A flurry of action like none ever seen in the NFL rang in the league’s New Year last Tuesday, and there has hardly been a moment to catch a breath since. Big trades and unexpected signings have changed the face of the NFL landscape and, most importantly for us, dramatically altered the value of several fantasy stars.
Frank Gore’s decision to leave San Francisco for the comfy confines of Andrew Luck’s backfield has left second-year RB Carlos Hyde as the unquestioned featured runner in what should be a run heavy offense. Naturally this fact excites Hyde’s many supporters, including yours truly, but there are some brakes in serious need of pumping.
Though Hyde is clearly the lead back in San Francisco, his path to 250 carries is not as clear as it looks. Reggie Bush is not the same player he once was, but his presence will undoubtedly be a drain on Hyde’s touches. Hyde had 83 carries in only 14 games last season, and Bush should at least replicate that workload if he stays healthy.
Hyde will also lose carries to Colin Kaepernick, who the 49ers are clearly interested in getting more involved in the running game. Though Kaepernick rushed 105 times last season, only 38 were designed runs. That number should skyrocket next season, and that will siphon off some of Hyde’s work even if it helps his efficiency. (See: Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III)
Finally, the 49ers defense is poised to take a step back after the retirement of Patrick Willis and the likely retirement of Justin Smith. 136 of Gore’s 255 carries last season came with the team leading, and his workload did not decrease in the second half of games. That is because the 49ers’ defense kept the game close, keeping the offense out of catch up mode. Hyde is unlikely to get the same favor this season.
There will be more and more helium pumped into Hyde’s balloon all offseason, and it would not be surprising if Hyde jumps up into the early-second/late-first area Montee Ball occupied last draft season. Hyde is a good young player with a great opportunity, but so was Ball. I will pass if the price gets that high.
After finishing 2014 as the tenth best fantasy quarterback, Ryan Tannehill was getting some early love as a sneaky QB1 selection. With a completely retooled pass-catching corps and another offseason with OC Bill Lazor, it will now be hard to keep Tannehill out of the top-12.
The retooling began when the Dolphins let go touchdown allergic Brian Hartline late in February. They followed that up by signing athletic but injury-prone TE Jordan Cameron, acquiring dynamic young receiver Kenny Stills from the Saints and unloading perennial headache Mike Wallace on the Vikings. With Wallace off the books, the Dolphins should have enough money to bring back transition tagged Charles Clay if they so choose, and second-year WR Jarvis Landry should be able to build on a solid rookie season.
In Stills the Dolphins get a comparable deep threat to Wallace who is a much better player in the intermediate game where Tannehill thrives, and in Cameron they get a seam-stretching tight end only a year removed from an 80/917/7 season. Cameron’s injury history is concerning, but it is not hard to argue a healthy Cameron and Stills offer the Dolphins’ offense a lot more than Wallace and Hartline.
There are still some problems, namely the Dolphins inability to address the interior of their offensive line. This offseason has been so impressive, however, it seems likely Mike Tannenbaum and company will find some way to improve both guard positions before the season. If they do, Tannehill is a clear back-end QB1 heading into 2015.
For most of the offseason, Mark Ingram looked poised to leave New Orleans for a team more likely to give him both the money and offensive workload he needed to be a top-flight running back. As it turns out, he did eventually find that offense. It just happened to be in New Orleans.
Every move the Saints have made this season points to a team transitioning to a more balanced offense. They re-signed Ingram and signed C.J. Spiller to four-year deals, unloaded Jimmy Graham for a run-blocking center and a first-round pick, and sent Kenny Stills packing for a linebacker and third-round pick. They simultaneously decimated their pass-catching corps while bolstering their running attack. That is about as clear a message as the Saints can send. They want to run.
This change in philosophy should be a boon for Ingram. The arrival of Spiller will certainly take some touches away, but Ingram still managed over 15 touches a game when both Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson suited up last season. Spiller will likely have a slightly bigger role than Thomas, who averaged eight touches a game last year, but that increase should be mitigated and then some by the Saints change in philosophy.
After averaging almost 20 touches a game in 2014, Ingram looks poised to touch the ball at least 15 times a contest this season. As long as he can stay healthy, that workload should lock Ingram in as a high-end RB2.
Devonta Freeman and Marquess Wilson play for different teams, but they are in similar situations. After their teams failed to address their positions during the first week of free agency, both are de facto starters heading into 2015.
Wilson was a big part of the Bears’ offense down the stretch last season, seeing 23 total targets and playing 94 percent of the offensive snaps over the final four games. It is not a stretch to think the Bears had Wilson in mind when they decided to part ways with Brandon Marshall, and the addition of Eddie Royal in no way threatens Wilson’s place on the outside. Chicago could still address the position via the draft, but for now it appears Wilson will have a big role in Adam Gase’s traditionally pass heavy offense.
Freeman appears to be a great fit in new OC Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but more importantly, he is the only running back left. With Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers gone, the player with the most career rushing attempts on the Falcons’ roster is currently Matt Ryan. Freeman is second on that list and, by the sound of the coaches this offseason, a great bet for the 200 or so carries he will need to surpass Ryan.
The problem for both will be the hype trains that are already steaming full-speed ahead. Neither player has proven they can be consistent contributors, and yet Freeman is going as early as the third round in some MFL 10s. Wilson’s cost is much more reasonable, but it will almost certainly climb as the draft season wears on.
It would surprise no one if the Bears addressed the wide receiver position in the draft, and it would be shocking if the Falcons did not add a running back. Both players have potential, but both are unproven and in fluid situations. Freeman is a classic example of a sell high in Dynasty, and Wilson just may end up overvalued as well.
Russell Wilson has seen his pass attempts increase each of his first three seasons in the league. With red-zone weapon Jimmy Graham now in town, Wilson has No. 1 quarterback upside. … The addition of Roy Helu hurts his value a little bit, but it could have been a lot worse for Latavius Murray. He looks like the de facto starter in Oakland. … A healthy Sam Bradford would have QB1 upside in Chip Kelly’s offense, but assuming health is dangerous with Bradford. Assuming he will be in Philadelphia when the season begins is also dangerous. … The Giants targeted their running backs 16 percent of the time last season despite stone-hands Andre Williams leading the backfield for half the year. Shane Vereen should see at least 75 targets, and he could easily reach 125 carries as well.
It was always going to be difficult for DeMarco Murray to recreate his 2014 success, especially if he decided to leave Dallas and their outstanding offensive line. On the surface, though, Murray landing in Philadelphia would not seem to be a big downgrade. The Eagles have at least a comparable offensive line, and Philadelphia has finished as a top-ten rushing offense each of Chip Kelly’s two years in the league.
As crazy as it sounds, the real concern with Murray is touches. Despite finishing as the top fantasy back last season, Murray was only middle of the pack in per-touch fantasy scoring, averaging just over .65 fantasy points a touch in standard scoring. That relatively low number was great when coupled with the 450 touches Murray saw last year, but it will be something less than great if Murray’s .66 career point-per-touch average is paired with closer to 300 touches.
The question then becomes how many touches can we project to Murray in Philadelphia? LeSean McCoy averaged 353 touches his two seasons under Kelly, but his role in the passing game was massively scaled back in year two. McCoy also did not have a talent like Ryan Mathews behind him on the depth chart. Running backs not named LeSean McCoy had 189 attempts total the two years McCoy played under Kelly. McCoy handled 64.2 percent of the Eagles rushes during that time.
It is safe to assume Murray will not handle that kind of workload, and though he may be more involved in the passing game than McCoy was last year, a 150 touch drop off even without injury is well within reason. If that happens, Murray will have to be considerably more efficient than he was in Dallas to repeat as the No. 1 fantasy back.
The touch problem will also be an issue for Ryan Mathews, though to a much bigger degree. Without an injury to Murray, it is hard to see Mathews as anything more than a bench stash and desperation flex. His value was absolutely demolished by this signing.
For a player that relies on touchdowns for so much of his fantasy value, Julius Thomas could not have landed in a worse spot. Thomas has caught twelve touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, deriving 53 percent of his fantasy output from those scores. Jaguars’ quarterbacks threw 15 touchdowns total in 2014, with Blake Bortles managing just 11 in 14 appearances.
That is obviously not to say Bortles and the Jags’ offense cannot improve, but it is a safe assumption Jacksonville will not reach the heights of the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. Even if Thomas is able to play an entire season, a drop to the six-to-eight touchdown range would turn him into more of a mid-tier tight end.
Touchdowns might not be a problem for new Seahawk Jimmy Graham, but opportunities could be. The Saints averaged almost 659 passing attempts a season the five years Graham was in New Orleans. That is 205 passes more than Seattle attempted last season. Though Russell Wilson has seen his passing attempts increase each of his three seasons in the league, Graham will likely need 30 percent of the Seahawks’ targets to maintain his normal workload. Only Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas had more than 30 percent of their team's targets last season.
All of this makes Rob Gronkowski an even more important fantasy asset. I laid out the rationale for a tight end being the first non-running back drafted in standard formats last summer, and the separation between Gronk and the rest of the field has only gotten larger since then. There is an argument for Gronk in the top five.
The other side of Ingram’s fantasy ascension is the decline of Drew Brees. Once a stone-cold lock to throw 650 passes a season, the Saints’ offseason moves suggest Brees will be asked to do a lot less in 2015. Based on his efficiency the last several seasons, that could be a real problem for his fantasy value.
Brees’ peak in efficiency came in 2011 when he averaged almost .72 standard fantasy points per attempt. Since 2011, Brees’ efficiency has steadily declined. He averaged around .65 an attempt over 2012 and 2013 before falling all the way to .59 per attempt in 2014.
The real culprit in Brees’ efficiency decline is a decrease in touchdowns, a problem that will likely be exacerbated by the departure of Jimmy Graham. Brees’ touchdown percentage has fallen every year since 2011, and even if he returns to the 6-percent average he set as a baseline over the last half decade, 575 attempts would only net Brees 34 touchdowns. Without Graham, a return to that level is hard to imagine.
With his efficiency and touchdown production on the decline, the real saving grace for Brees was volume, but the Saints’ offseason moves suggest volume is not something we can rely on from Brees any longer. Even if he drops off to a still elite 600 attempts in 2015, Brees would project as more of a mid-range QB1 rather than a top-tier guy. If his attempts fall off more or his efficiency continues to decline, Brees could fall even further.
The touchdowns are why people are worried about Jeremy Maclin, but offensive fit is as big a concern. He thrived as a deep threat last season, and that role will simply not be an option in Kansas City. … Davante Adams was never going to replace Randall Cobb, but he would have at least been in line for a few more targets. He is still worth a flier on a team which runs three-wide 71 percent of the time. … My love for Donte Moncrief is still strong, but the addition of Andre Johnson really puts a damper on his redraft value. Moncrief will still get work in three-wide sets, but the Colts only ran out of that formation 51 percent of the time last season.