Jesse Pantuosco

Bump and Run

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NFL Mailbag

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


I know I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ll level with you guys—I’m fried right now. It’s been a hectic month putting together the Draft Guide (it’s coming along nicely) and as soon as I press submit on this article, I’ll be packing up my car and moving into a new apartment. Forget burgers and cornhole in the backyard. My Memorial Day weekend consisted solely of writing, packing and getting my heart ripped out by LeBron James.

 

All of this begs the question, what am I supposed to write about? Football is usually a goldmine for writing material but even for the offseason, it’s been a dull week. Last week’s highlights included the NFL completely butchering its national anthem policy, the Raiders acquiring draft bust Christian Hackenberg from the Jets and Le’Veon Bell releasing a passive-aggressive rap song (not bad, but he’s no Cole Beasley). I don’t think that’s gonna’ get me to 1,500 words. So why not use this time to answer a few fantasy questions? I asked for your help on Twitter and thankfully, you guys came through in a big way. In fact, the response was so strong I may have to save some of your questions for next week.

 

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Now for another mailbag edition of Bump and Run. First question:     

 

Who will be the starting running back for the Buccaneers?

 

The leader in the clubhouse right now is second-round rookie Ronald Jones. There’s been talk of the Buccaneers potentially taking a flyer on Adrian Peterson, but even if they do, I don’t see him as anything more than a complementary piece at this stage of his career. Saquon Barkley would have been nice—Tampa Bay’s run game could certainly use a shot of life after Doug Martin spent the better part of last year running into brick walls (league-worst 2.9 yards per carry)—but Jones may be the next best thing. Jones was electric at USC, pacing the offense with 1,673 yards from scrimmage (1,486 rushing, 187 receiving) and 19 touchdowns as a junior last year. He accomplished those feats while averaging a robust 6.1 yards per carry.

 

Like all rookies, the 20-year-old has some rough edges to smooth out. In college, he was subpar in pass protection and wasn’t featured much in the Trojans’ passing game. Those are both common complaints among young halfbacks—Leonard Fournette was similarly inexperienced as a pass-catcher when he arrived in Jacksonville last season and wound up catching 36 balls for 302 yards and a touchdown. But with only Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims to compete with in the Bucs’ backfield, Jones should quickly emerge as Tampa Bay’s lead ball-carrier and a trustworthy RB2/3 in fantasy. For the record, Jones is my current RB28, well ahead of Barber (RB48) and Rodgers, who I didn’t even bother to rank.

 

When’s the earliest you would pick Tom Brady?

 

This is more a matter of principle than how I actually perceive Brady. Obviously, the bottom could fall out for Brady at any time and as he gets up there in years (he’ll be 41 in August), that risk increases. Peyton Manning’s fall from fantasy relevance happened seemingly overnight. In 2013, he set league records for touchdowns and passing yards en route to his fifth MVP award. Two years later he was nearly benched for Brock Osweiler.

 

I don’t think that will happen with Brady, at least not this season. His growing estrangement from coach Bill Belichick, though not ideal, shouldn’t have much impact on his fantasy performance. Brady remains a monumental talent—the last time we saw him he threw for over 500 yards in a Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia—with an excellent supporting cast in New England. Outside of perhaps Aaron Rodgers, you won’t find a better fantasy quarterback than Touchdown Tom.

 

But here’s the question you should really be asking yourself—at what point in the draft do I address quarterback? Rodgers and Brady last forever in industry drafts and there’s a reason for that. As league-wide passing numbers continue to rise, the position has become devalued to the point where analysts like JJ Zachariason (Twitter handle LateRoundQB) have advocated a streaming approach in fantasy. Elite running backs and wide receivers are few and far between while viable starting quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger can consistently be found in the later rounds of fantasy drafts. And unless, you’re playing in a super-flex league a la the Scott Fish Bowl (I’ll be making my debut this year), you only need one quarterback.

 

I’m probably preaching to the choir here as most savvy fantasy players have already adopted the late-round quarterback philosophy. That being said, there does reach a point where Brady and Rodgers become bargains and I think that’s probably around the sixth or seventh round. As a point of reference, I participated in a draft for Lindy’s Magazine earlier this month and somehow had Brady fall in my lap with the 89th overall pick. I don’t think that’s a very likely outcome in casual leagues, but in a more cut-throat, industry-type setting, you might catch lightning in a bottle like I did.

 

Who will lead the Jaguars in targets?

 

I guess I’d lean Marqise Lee. No wait … I’m changing my answer to Keelan Cole. Actually, now that you mention it, I could definitely see a scenario where Dede Westbrook leads the team in targets. Was that helpful? Jokes aside, the Jaguars present a very interesting fantasy dilemma. Jacksonville is quietly stacked at wideout but with Allen Robinson gone (not that he was much of a factor last year—he played just three snaps before tearing his ACL in Week 1), there’s no one on the roster you could call a true No. 1 receiver.

 

So how do we go about this? Stats … yes! Stats will guide our compass. But wait … Lee, Cole and Westbrook produced almost identical numbers last year. Lee averaged 50.1 yards per game, barely ahead of Westbrook (48.4) and only slightly higher than Cole (46.8). So much for clarity.

 

Despite missing two games with a sprained ankle, Lee led the team in targets with 96 and I’m inclined to believe he’ll do so again. He’s more of a possession receiver while Cole works downfield. Free agent signing Donte Moncrief, who replaces Allen Hurns, provides a red-zone presence (18 career touchdowns) but not much else. You have to question the logic of cutting Hurns because he signed a bad contract (four years, $40 million) and then signing Moncrief to a similarly bad deal (one-year, $9.6 million), but in the interest of time, I’ll save that rant for another day.

 

Yes, gun to my head, I think Lee will lead the team in targets. But here’s a more interesting question—which Jaguars receiver will carry the day in fantasy? It’s probably still Lee but you could definitely make a case for Cole as well. Last year’s draft churned out one of the weakest receiving classes in recent memory, but Cole was one of the few bright spots, finishing fourth among rookies with 748 receiving yards, which also led his team. The undrafted Kentucky Wesleyan product wasn’t particularly efficient—he came down with just 51.9 percent of his targets from Blake Bortles—but he flourished down the stretch, totaling 475 yards over his final five regular season games. That coincided with the absence of Hurns, who was battling a high-ankle sprain.

 

Obviously, there are a ton of mouths to feed in Jacksonville—I didn’t even mention second-round rookie D.J. Chark, arguably the top deep threat in this year’s draft class. And years of disappointment have taught us that putting any modicum of faith in Blake Bortles is usually a fool’s errand. But if you’re in the market for a late-round sleeper in fantasy drafts this summer, you could probably do a lot worse than Cole.

 

Who benefits the most from Hunter Henry’s injury?

 

You’re going to laugh when I say this, but it might be someone who isn’t even on the team right now. Those of you who read my column on a weekly basis know I was pretty bullish on Henry, who looked destined for a third-year breakout following the Chargers’ decision not to re-sign veteran Antonio Gates, who, despite his fading skill set, still logged 499 snaps last season. Not surprisingly, there have already been rumblings of Gates possibly reuniting with the team he’s spent his entire career with. Given the Bolts’ current options—Virgil Green is No. 1 on their tight end depth chart—I think there’s a good chance you’ll see the 37-year-old dust off his old powder-blue uni and return to Los Angeles. Nobody knows L.A.’s offense better than Gates, the all-time touchdown leader among tight ends. I wouldn’t necessarily endorse Gates in fantasy, though, given his red-zone prowess, I think he’ll certainly carry some streaming appeal.

 

Let’s not undersell this—Henry is an enormous loss. He’s one of the best all-around tight ends in football, grading out as PFF’s No. 2 receiving tight end (behind Rob Gronkowski, obviously) while also earning their eighth-highest run-blocking grade (that’s out of 72 qualifiers). Then again, Philip Rivers has proven to be among the most resilient quarterbacks in football. Even with Keenan Allen out most of the year in 2016, Rivers still finished fourth in touchdown passes (33) and fifth in passing yards (4,386) while elevating Tyrell Williams from obscurity to stardom.

 

Rivers should ultimately be fine and if I had to guess, the bulk of Henry’s lost production will fall to Allen, who was an absolute world-beater last year with 102 catches (fourth-most in the NFL) for a career-high 1,393 yards (third-most). Allen logged a gargantuan workload in 2017 and now with Henry and Gates both gone (at least as it stands now), it would be an upset if he didn’t lead the league in targets. I suppose that level of work could increase his already-high injury risk, but speaking from a pure fantasy perspective, that kind of volume will be tough to pass on.

 

I wasn’t impressed with 2017 first-rounder Mike Williams as a rookie (11 catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns), but he also wasn’t healthy, so I’m willing to cut him some slack. Henry and Gates combined for 115 of the Chargers’ 583 targets last year (19.7 percent) and I imagine some percentage of that will go to Williams, who was probably headed for a bigger role anyway.

 

Despite a golden opportunity, it’s a pipe dream to think Virgil Green can develop into a true fantasy asset. The 29-year-old should be the starter with Henry on the shelf but he’s mostly known for his blocking and hasn’t made much of a dent in fantasy. His career-high in catches is 22 and he’s never scored more than one touchdown in any of his seven seasons. To quote the great Randy Jackson, that’s gonna’ be a no for me, dog.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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