Our magazine cover says it all, doesn’t it? Receiver Revolution. Year of the wideout. Whatever you want to call it, this is their year.
Evan Silva, who isn’t wrong about things, posted his pre-training camp top 150 on Monday. You’ll notice wide receivers occupy the top eight spots. That’s unheard of. But it’s our reality. Welcome to 2016.
So where does this leave running backs? It all depends on the personnel, which varies from team to team. For example, Adrian Peterson is still a safe bet for 300 carries in Minnesota. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata don’t pose a real threat to his workload while Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t have the arm strength to stretch the field vertically. In a thin offense full of underwhelming talent (the jury’s still out on rookie Laquon Treadwell), handing the ball off to Peterson 25 times a game isn’t just the Vikings’ best option—it’s their only option.
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But most teams aren’t as one-dimensional as Minnesota, and if they are, they tend to lean in the other direction, relying heavily on the pass while neglecting their running game (see New England Patriots). What makes Peterson a rare bird, at least in today’s NFL, is that he’s a true workhorse. The trend we’re seeing around the league is that bell-cows like Peterson are being phased out in favor of committee backs with more specialized roles.
The workhorse versus committee argument is a battle being waged across the league and the Falcons find themselves at the very forefront of this debate. Last year, the Falcons uncovered a gem in Devonta Freeman. The former fourth-round pick rumbled to a league-high 11 rushing touchdowns while providing 1,639 yards from scrimmage (1,061 rushing, 578 receiving). Freeman figured to open this year as the unquestioned starter and a sure-fire RB1 in fantasy leagues. But RBs coach Bobby Turner may not be a subscriber to that theory. He wants the Falcons’ running back position to be an open competition between Freeman and second-year back Tevin Coleman.
“They are very similar,” said Turner. “When it comes down to it, the one difference is the flat out long speed of Tevin Coleman."
We can interpret these comments a number of different ways. It could be pure motivation, a not-so subtle plea for Turner to avoid complacency and improve on his breakout season. Or maybe it’s deception, a classic misdirect to throw opponents off the scent and make game-planning for the Falcons’ ground attack a difficult assignment. Or maybe it’s the God’s honest truth. What if Coleman is faster and even better than Freeman? That would flip the fantasy world upside down … or would it?
If you recall, Coleman was going higher than Freeman in fantasy drafts last summer. Freeman was coming off a disappointing rookie year while Coleman, a third-round pick out of Indiana, had the look of a fantasy sleeper. Coleman actually opened the year as Atlanta’s lead back with 20 carries for 80 yards in Week 1. Freeman stepped in when Coleman broke a rib in Week 2 and never looked back.
Coleman had his moments, particularly in Week 12 when he gashed the Vikings for a career-high 110 yards on 18 carries. The 23-year-old settled in as a solid change-of-pace back for Atlanta, though ball security (three lost fumbles) was his undoing. He was also a non-factor in the passing game with just two catches on 11 targets.
Freeman’s fantasy contributions last year, though significant, were heavily frontloaded. Over 62 percent of his rushing yards came during a six-game stretch between Weeks 3-8. Freeman averaged 5.12 yards per carry in those games compared to 2.95 in his other nine appearances. After scoring nine touchdowns over a five-game stretch between Weeks 2 and 6, Freeman visited the end zone only once over his next six contests.
Freeman finished the year strong by scoring a touchdown in each of his last three games, but his midseason hiccup certainly cast a shadow of doubt on his long-term upside. What prevented Freeman from falling off the RB1 map entirely was his steady role in the Falcons’ passing game. He ranked third among NFL running backs in receptions (73) and yards (578) and was the Falcons’ second most-targeted receiver behind first-team All-Pro Julio Jones. There were dry spells but more often than not, Freeman was a reliable target for Matt Ryan.
While I still see Freeman as the starter, I agree with Coach Turner’s notion that Freeman might stand to benefit from a lighter workload. Freeman logged 337 touches last season, the most of any running back not named Adrian Peterson. Fatigue had to have been a factor in Freeman’s relatively lackluster second half and we all saw what happened to DeMarco Murray a year after logging 392 carries.
The easy fix would be to install Freeman as the early-down back and have Coleman sub in on passing downs. That’s not unusual in today’s NFL. Guys like Shane Vereen and C.J. Spiller have made their living on third downs. Unfortunately Coleman’s receiving instincts are weak and Freeman was one of the more successful passing-down backs in football last season. Would the Falcons then consider using Coleman as the early-down enforcer with Freeman playing the Danny Woodhead role on third downs?
That role reversal would torpedo Freeman’s remaining fantasy value, though I doubt we’d see something that drastic. A more likely scenario would be a timeshare similar to what we’ve seen in Denver with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. The hot-hand approach created a messy guessing game for fantasy owners but it paid off for the Broncos late in the year when Demaryius Thomas disappeared and Peyton Manning’s tank was on empty.
Fantasy owners are sheep in that we’re all constantly looking over our shoulder, peeking at what the guy next to us is doing. We like to know the temperature before jumping into the pool. That’s exactly why we have sites like FantasyPros that calculate ADP.
So where do Freeman and Coleman fit within the fantasy football hierarchy? According to FantasyPros’ consensus rankings, Freeman is still viewed as the No. 9 overall running back with Coleman all the way back at No. 42. That sounds about right for Freeman but Coleman is still being grossly undervalued. He’s a must-have handcuff for Freeman and should be going much higher than his current ADP, which has him going late in the 11th round.
Quick Hits: According to team reporter Andrew Mason, Trevor Siemian has a legitimate chance to be the Broncos’ Week 1 starter at quarterback. Denver’s other options are Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch … So here’s where we stand in the Von Miller negotiations. The Broncos are offering six years at $114 million with $61 million guaranteed. Meanwhile Miller, who is still bitter that contract terms were leaked last month, has no intention of playing under the franchise tag. The deadline for a long-term deal is Friday at 4 p.m. ET … In other franchise tag news, a long-term agreement between the Bears and Alshon Jeffery looks like a long shot while the Ravens are optimistic they’ll get a deal done with Justin Tucker. Eric Berry, Trumaine Johnson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Kirk Cousins are also on the clock … Giants team reporter John Schmeelk says Will Tye “caught everything” at OTAs and minicamp. Tye is competing with Larry Donnell for the starting job at tight end … Dan Carpenter’s roster spot could be in jeopardy. He’ll be facing stiff competition at camp from undrafted kicker Marshall Morgan … Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin hinted that Tyler Eifert (ankle surgery) could miss a handful of regular season games. A.J. Green is about to get a lot more targets … Karlos Williams showed up to Bills’ minicamp last month at least 20 pounds overweight. Williams claims he gained sympathy weight during his wife’s pregnancy … Calvin Johnson explained his decision to retire in an ESPN E:60, citing chronic pain and multiple concussions. Megatron also claimed that doctors handed out painkillers “like candy” during his playing career … After spending four months in roster purgatory, the Lions finally pulled the plug on MLB Stephen Tulloch. The veteran is coming off ankle surgery … Titans RBs coach Sylvester Croom has reportedly been “blown away” by DeMarco Murray’s leadership and even called him “a coach’s dream.” Murray has made a much better impression in Tennessee than he did in Philadelphia last year … Todd Gurley has some advice for fantasy owners: take him first overall. "You maybe could choose Antonio Brown over me, but no one else,” said the reigning Rookie of the Year. “Maybe Cam. That’s it” … Thomas Rawls plans to be ready for the start of training camp in a few weeks. Rawls missed all of OTAs while recovering from a broken ankle he suffered late last season … Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ Advanced Media listed Rueben Randle ahead of Nelson Agholor in his latest depth chart projections. Agholor is coming off a horrible rookie season and reportedly dropped too many passes at OTAs … Sammy Watkins was shown sprinting in an Instagram video last week. He’s still healing from offseason foot surgery but should be ready to go early on in training camp … Jared Cook declared himself 100 percent healthy. The Packers tight end sat out OTAs while recovering from foot surgery … Jacksonville sheriff Mike Williams said the department is looking into whether or not Denard Robinson should be charged with DUI after falling asleep at the wheel and driving into a retention pond last week. The Sheriff’s Office will also review the conduct of the officer who was called to the accident … A proposal to raise hotel taxes to help fund a new stadium in San Diego is officially on the ballot. To get on the ballot, the Chargers collected over 110,000 signatures in less than six weeks. The vote is in November … Apparently the Cardinals cut Lawrence Okoye last offseason after he parked his car in the wrong space. The scene was shown in the new Amazon documentary series, All or Nothing … Russell Wilson finally married Ciara last week in England. Jimmy Graham was a groomsmen at the wedding.