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Kadarius Toney: Post-Hype Sleeper, or Post-Sleeper with hype?

Kadarius Toney

Kadarius Toney

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Even though it feels like Kadarius Toney has been around since the dawn of time, he somehow only has 373 career offensive snaps to his name. He also -- for all the hype -- had just one game of any real fantasy note. His 10-catch, 189-yard blowup against the Cowboys in Week 5 of the 2021 season was the game that launched a thousand arguments about his ceiling and how high it could be.

Then, in his second game as a Chief, with Mecole Hardman sidelined due to an abdominal issue, Toney put together a 4/57/1 line -- it’s actually the first touchdown of his career, believe it or not -- and played 28 snaps. The hype has been good enough to get him rostered. Is this trending in a direction to where we’d actually start Toney in a shallow league?

The end of the Toney Era in New York

Toney seemed to be “injured” an awful lot for the Giants this offseason and early season. His knee was a constant issue in training camp and the preseason as he recovered from offseason surgery. Both of his hamstrings bothered him at different points. He played no preseason snaps. I find it hard to really criticize a Giants squad that is 7-2 and seemingly pulling all the right levers, but from the get-go they seemed extremely disinterested in playing Toney. (And Darius Slayton, who has stayed and eventually played well.) They wanted to play “their guys.”

And, well, so it went. Toney played just 35 snaps for the Giants this season. During that time he was targeted three times for zero yards.

If you look at how he performed in 2021, well, a lot of his most successful stuff was underneath. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception (subscription required) had Toney with below-average success rates on almost every route that required him getting downfield. He was useful on screens, flat routes, slant routes, and -- the lone above-average score on a deeper route -- digs.

Let’s grapple a bit with the legacy of that 2021 game against the Cowboys. You might think based on what I’ve laid out that Toney just broke a ton of tackles in that game since that’s kind of the archetype of player his skill set belongs to. But if you watch what actually happened, most of his YAC revolved around just having enough speed to run around Cowboys defenders in open space. He had a few deeper catches mixed in, but they weren’t exactly paragons of excellent receiver play. One of them involved a push-off on a Dallas corner. Another of his deeper catches involved him double-clutching the ball.

Toney did not break a single tackle in this game per SportsRadar’s data. There has been a cottage fantasy football industry devoted to besmirching how unsustainable Deebo Samuel‘s yards after catch figures are, but Deebo is a unicorn specifically because of the power he offers in breaking tackles. Toney has none of that. Comparing him to Samuel is silly, of course, but I think it’s important to lay this out because I think the crux of the argument of Toney having a high upside is that he’s going to somehow be so dynamic in the open field that his touches are more valuable than most.

Toney’s expected YAC per reception per NFL Next Gen Stats was 4.5, and his actual YAC per reception was 6.1. That 1.6 yards of difference is good, but hardly elite. We’re dealing in extremely small sample sizes because that is all we have of Toney’s career to this point. Even if we lump all of that data together, we’re hard-pressed to say that Toney is great down the field or great in open space. He’s talented, certainly -- this isn’t me telling you that he’s going to be out of the league in two years. But he’s not proven to be gravitational. Nobody is building a game plan to stop Kadarius Toney so far.

How did he get his targets in Week 10?

Andy Reid previously said that he would work in Toney slowly, and that it would be a gradual process. However, with Hardman down, Toney almost immediately filled his void as shifty slot receiver. That included an incredibly-designed play for a touchdown that boosted Toney’s fantasy line:

The entirety of the Jaguars defense moved as the play moved left, Toney was left so wide open that there wasn’t even a challenge on scoring. To be sure, this is the kind of play the Chiefs reliably create from time to time. But I would argue it doesn’t really tell us much about Toney’s skill set to catch this ball. It doesn’t tell the story of him ascending the depth chart.

Let’s look at his other big plays from this game.

We’ve got a perfectly drawn-up end around where the Jaguars end is unblocked and not fast enough to make the play, leading to a ton of unblocked yardage. We’ve got the standard bootleg looper from the other side of the field where, admittedly, Toney breaks a weak tackle attempt and then gets some extra yardage downfield off more missed tackles from his spin move. Finally, we have a play where his quarterback does all the hard work for him. Mahomes’ pump fake freezes the cornerback as he gets ready to break on the ball -- the ball was never thrown, of course, and now Toney is open on the back shoulder.

It was a nice set of plays, but it was, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the set of plays that Hardman was getting. He essentially absorbed that role. I think the Chiefs probably look at him as a one-for-one Hardman replacement with Hardman hitting free agency after the season.

Now, that’s not to say that Toney is not better than Hardman. I don’t think we have enough evidence on throws downfield to really point one way or another on that. But were you ever happy to have rostered Hardman in fantasy football? I don’t think what we’ve seen from Toney downfield points to him secretly being Tyreek Hill. He’s a useful NFL slot receiver, with a lot to prove to grow beyond that.

Heading into the waiver wire stretch this week, I find myself deprioritizing Toney this week in leagues where he’s available. The offense is certainly good enough to where he could have some splash plays, but if his role is going to gradually be created, is what we saw this week reliant on Hardman not being active? And what we saw this week, let’s be clear, was 44% of the offensive snaps and six touches. It could also be referred to as “not Justin Watson‘s role.” The upside, as always, is good enough to stash. (And who knows what happens with JuJu Smith-Schuster after the horrific-looking concussion he suffered? Maybe that opens up another high-snap week in Week 11.) But looking at the role and the little we’ve seen of him as a downfield receiver, it’s hard for me to believe he’s going to be startable in fantasy leagues for the rest of the season unless he just goes out and shows us something we haven’t seen before in Week 11.

My belief is that he’ll be a nice spot starter when the Chiefs are banged up. I’m not relying on anything more than that for now.