NFL teams and executives lie. It's basically all they do. There are two times when they are forced not too. During the NFL draft, and during free agency. They have no choice but to show their cards. Draft capital and contracts talk louder than anything else in the sport.
With the NFL Draft coming and going, depth charts are shaping up quickly and we can really start taking a look at who the 2018 fantasy football winners and losers were following the conclusion of it. Today, we'll do just that, focusing specifically on quarterbacks and tight ends.
Case Keenum - MIN
Heading into the draft, everybody expected the Denver Broncos to choose a quarterback. Instead, they bolstered their pass rush with Bradley Chubb and made no moves that suggested they would be turning away from the newly-acquired Keenum. Last year, Keenum ranked 15th in total fantasy points among all quarterbacks and did so in only 15 games after replacing brittle Sam Bradford. This may not seem impressive at first glance, but Minnesota ranked 28th in the percentage of plays that were passes last year and 21st in total pass attempts. For all you math experts out there, you can probably see by this in-depth stat that the Vikings weren't a pass heavy team. In the Mile High City (emphasis on the high), they ranked 17th in percentage of pass plays and 12th in total pass attempts. Think about that, they were in the top half of the league in total attempts with Trevor Siemian, 6'8 Jimmy from Shameless, and John Elway's love child slinging the ball, and by "slinging" I mean throwing a dart into a cornerback's chest. Case is an obvious step-up from the 3 Stooges known as the 2017 Denver Broncos quarterback helm, so he will likely take advantage of the increased opportunity with little to no threat of losing his job. Here's something else you can take to the bank: last year, Denver's quarterbacks combined for 73 pass attempts inside the redzone, which if it was an individual effort, would've ranked 8th overall tied with Russell Wilson. In comparison, Keenum only attempted 53 passes inside the redzone, that's...give me a second...20 fewer attempts than those other 3 frauds. Now you may be wondering, "is that because Case Keenum is a bad passer inside the 20?" Au contraire. What if I told you Keenum ranked 4th in the NFL in completion percentage among quarterbacks with >30 attempts in the RZ, only behind Drew Brees (56/82, 68%), Carson Wentz (39/60, 65%), and Aaron Rodgers (23/36, 64%). In 15 games, Keenum went 33/53 (62%) inside the redzone, so if we project him to reach the 73 attempts Denver had last year (keeping his % constant), he would hypothetically reach 45.45 completions, which would've ranked him 5th among all quarterbacks last year, behind Tom Brady (56), Drew Brees (56), Ben Roethlisberger (48), and Jared Goff (46). Although Keenum's production could have leaned on his elite weapons last year, with the likes of Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and red zone monster Kyle Rudolph, these numbers aren't unattainable in Denver with weapons like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, two guys who, before this season, had eclipsed 1,000 yards 5 and 3 years in a row respectively. In the draft, Denver also picked up two solid wideouts, Courtland Suttonand DaeSean Hamilton, who should also bolster the passing game in Denver. As of now, Keenum is being drafted as the 23rd QB off the board, 152nd overall (per Fantasy Football Calculator), but with his new landing spot allowing him more opportunities and the acquisition of 2 new young talents on the outside, picking him here is at his floor and should be an elite waiver wire option, similar to Josh McCown last year.
Mitch Trubisky - CHI
Prior to the draft, Chicago made some changes, including the hiring of former Chiefs OC Matt Nagy as their new coach. Along with this move, they signed Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, three dynamic playmakers that immediately upgrade the passing attack from last year. What set this team over the top, though, was the Anthony Miller pick. Miller doesn't have the speed that Gabriel has, nor the size of Allen Robinson, but he should immediately step into the #2 spot. Watching him play, he looks similar to Doug Baldwin, a guy who wins with proficient route running and quick feet as opposed to outright speed. As for Matt Nagy, I'm not an expert on his coaching style/strategy, but what I do know is he is a huge upgrade from John Fox. Last year, the Chiefs' offensive DVOA, which ranks efficiency, ranked 5th in the NFL while Da Bears found themselves near the bottom of the list at 28. Also, after the Bears' bye week last year, Tarik Cohen out-snapped Benny Cunningham by about 6 snaps/game which is unacceptable. Nagy has already said he wants to use Cohen similarly to how he used Tyreek in KC, which means Trubisky will have another explosive playmaker this year that wasn't used to his full potential last year. Along with the increased usage of Cohen, the other options are a huge upgrade. Chicago's top pass catchers last year went by the names of Kendall Wright, who has topped 1,000 yards once in his career, Josh Bellamy, who had a career-high 376 yards, and Dontrelle Inman, the only wide receiver to catch a TD from inside the 20 for Chicago in 2017. With the addition of Allen Robinson and Trey Burton, as well as another year of Adam Shaheen getting acclimated to the NFL, Chicago immediately shows the potential to have above average red zone targets, which is an area they were inefficient in last year. Chicago's total RZ attempts last year would've only ranked at 18th as an individual effort, but this should be taken with a grain of salt as Chicago's offense was one of the worst in the NFL. They averaged 1.34 points/drive, which ranked 30th, while Nagy's Chiefs were 6th at 2.26 (per football outsiders). I don't expect Trubisky to take that huge of a jump, but it isn't impossible, as we saw the Carson Wentz-led Eagles jump from 18th to 4th in that statistic after having one year under his belt. With another year in the league, a new coach who was an integral part in KC's offensive success last year, the addition of new weapons through free agency and the draft, Chicago's proficient o-line, and his rushing upside, Trubisky should see a huge bump in his fantasy value for 2018 and will likely outproduce where he's being chosen, currently at QB25, pick 160 (per ff calculator).
Matt Ryan - ATL
Last year, Matt Ryan saw his production take a hit after the departure of Kyle Shanahan, going from the MVP to having arguably his worst season (production-wise) since 2009. Ryan threw for his lowest yardage (4095) since 2010 (3705) and his lowest touchdown mark (20) since his rookie year (16). This year seems like an outlier though, as he has averaged 28.86 touchdowns and 4,478 yards since 2010, which are very similar to Matt Stafford's numbers last year (4,446 yards and 29 touchdowns), which ranked him 5th in total fantasy points among quarterbacks. He also had his first sub 50% red zone completion percentage since 2011. The difference, though, was in 2011 he still threw for 19 touchdowns inside the 20 on 48.25% completion percentage, while last year he only reached 15 touchdowns, his lowest of his career, on his career low RZ completion percentage of 46.15%. These numbers should regress towards the mean and should become a viable fantasy option. Since his rookie season, he has finished outside of the QB1 range twice (last year and 2015), so being drafted as QB14, 105th overall is near his floor, and is going over 40 picks after Jimmy Garrapolo and almost 30 later than Jared Goff.
Atlanta drafted probably the most developed wide receiver in the draft, Calvin Ridley, the 23-year-old route-technician with top-end speed. With this addition, they now have a deeper and more talented receiving core built around the GOAT Julio Jones while maintaining their offensive line, which ranked 2nd in the league last year, per Pro Football Focus. This is probably Atlanta's best receiving core since 2014 where they had both Roddy White and Julio Jones. In that season, Ryan threw for nearly 4700 yards and reached 28 touchdowns, which is extremely similar to his average production since 2010. Even though his production fell well short of his average, Atlanta has shown they aren't moving away from their passing attack. In 2016, Ryan's MVP year, Atlanta had a 58% pass rate while last year it only fell to 56% even after showing signs of inefficiency. In 2018, he will likely see similar splits, giving further opportunity to succeed. Now, it would be one thing if I was the only one endorsing Matty Ice, luckily, I'm not. The Falcons recently signed him for 5 years $150 million with $100 mil guaranteed. For fantasy's sake, let's hope he takes some advice from the mayor of Atlanta, Gucci Mane, and instead of fumbling the bag, he can flip it and tumble it.
Andy Dalton - CINIn the draft, the Bengals spent their first-round pick on center Billy Price from Ohio State. Price, standing at 6'4 305 pounds, is an athletic freak who should immediately improve the offensive line. Last year, the Bengals' starting center was Russell Bodine, who ranked 27th in pass blocking efficiency(per pff). Along with Price, the Bengals made a trade to acquire Cordy Glenn, who missed most of the 2017 season but has ranked as a top 20 ranked pass-blocking tackle since his rookie year. This is an obvious improvement from last year's starter Cedric Ogbuehi, who ranked as the 69th (nice) best pass-blocking tackle. Glenn's only concern is his health, playing 17 games through the past 2 seasons, but, if healthy, should be a great replacement for Andrew Whitworth, who the Bengals failed to resign after the 2016 season. After ranking as the 28th best line last year, and using 21 different line combinations (which tied for 5th most in the NFL), the Bengals realized this was an area of need and decided to invest heavily into the position, hopefully improving them drastically for the 2018 season.
Dak Prescott - DAL
After passing on Dez Bryant, many believed the Cowboys would invest in the wide receiver position early in the draft. With all of the top prospects still available at pick 19, the Cowboys decided to choose linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Along with this investment in their defense, the Cowboys followed that pick up with Connor Williams, an offensive guard to help their already dominant line (ranked 4th overall in 2017 per pff). It was in the third round when the Cowboys finally decided to choose a receiver, Michael Gallup, in hopes of improving their depleted passing attack. Although he has drawn comparisons to Michael Crabtree, he will likely not fill the Dez Bryant role in this offense in his first year in the league. Not only did the Cowboys lose their top wideout, they also lost hall of fame tight end Jason Witten, Dak's sure-handed safety blanket. What's left of the receiving core is Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and the new additions of Allen Hurns and rookie Michael Gallup. Their tight end depth is also limited, as the player they drafted, Dalton Schultz, is more of a help in run-blocking than he is a receiving threat.
What scares me about these losses is the impact it will likely have on Dak's red zone efficiency. Last year, Dak only completed 47.83% of RZ passes for 16 touchdowns and 3 picks. What's more concerning is Dez, Witten, and Brice Butler accounted for 11 of Dak's 16 touchdowns inside the 20, and now, all 3 options are gone. The only returning players to catch a red-zone touchdown from him are Zeke (1) and 5-foot nothin Cole Beasley (4). Dez commanded 32.4% of the team's red zone targets, which was 4th among all wide-receivers (per playerprofiler), meaning Dak trusted him to come down with the ball inside the 20 when he dropped back to pass. Also, Dez and Witten have accounted for nearly 1400 yards and 1476 receiving yards in 2017 and 2016, respectively, around 40% of Dak's passing yards each of the past two seasons. With only one offseason to prepare with these new weapons, Dak will not have the chemistry and confidence he once had with his pass catchers, and although Allen Hurns and Gallup aren't the worst options to have in the passing game, it's much worse than what Dak has had in years past. Along with the loss of these weapons, Dallas is a run-heavy team and has hopes of keeping it this way. This isn't only speculation, as Dallas has improved on its already dominant rushing attack by adding Tavon Austin to act as a change-of-pace to Zeke, more depth with the drafting of Bo Scarbrough, and taking Connor Williams to sure up the o line. Along with these additions, Dallas has ranked 30th and 32nd in team pass plays over the past two seasons (per playerprofiler),12th in time of possession in 2017 and 3rd in 2016, and 3rd highest run rate in 2017 and 1st highest in 2016. Dak has been hyper-efficient over his first two years in the league, but as the team remains run-first and loses familiar faces in the passing game, I don't expect him to finish as a QB1, where he has over the past 2 years. He is currently being picked as QB16 ahead of guys like Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston. QB16 isn't completely out of the range of possibilities due to his rushing upside, but I wouldn't expect him to keep up his efficiency through the air that made him a trusted QB1.
Hunter Henry - LAC
The Chargers decided to improve on their already elite secondary early in the draft and bolstered their front line in the next few rounds. The only skill position players chosen were selected in the 6th and 7th rounds, neither of which were tight ends. The Chargers did acquire a tight end, Virgil Green, who I believe will actually increase Henry's value. Last year, Hunter Henry lined up as a blocker on 49.6% (296/597) of his snaps (per pff). Antonio Gates on the other hand only did so on 32% (160/499) of his snaps. Virgil Green blocked on 72.6% (386/532) of his snaps, showing he is a willing blocker and will be used heavily in that aspect of the game. The Chargers ran 2+ tight end sets on 35% of their plays, so it will be likely that they will roll out both Green and Henry at the same time, but Green will be used more heavily as a blocker than Henry. If Henry reduces his blocking rate, he will be used more frequently as a pass catcher, allowing him to take over some of the production resulting from Antonio Gates' departure. Gates leaves behind 10 touchdowns over the past 2 years, and last year, received 11 red zone targets while Henry received 12. Rivers forced Gates the ball inside the 20 so he could break Tony Gonzales' TE TD record, ignoring other options. Now that Gates is gone, Henry is their best, and probably will be their most utilized, red zone option. Keenan Allen did receive 24 targets inside the 20, but only 15 inside the 10, while Gates and Henry combined for 19. If they continue this trend of targeting their tight end inside the tenzone, Henry should see an increased value, as he is the only real tight end threat in the passing game.
Henry should also see an expanded role outside of the red zone. Antonio Gates accounted for 52 targets, 30 receptions, and 316 yards in 2017. Let's say we give Hunter Henry 50% of what they lost with the departure of Gates and project Henry's season out to a full 16 games (only played 12 in 2017). Projected out to 16 games, Henry was on pace for 83 targets, 60 receptions, 772 yards, and about 5 touchdowns, which would have made him tight end 8 (full PPR) behind Jimmy Graham. Now, with the addition of 50% of Gates' production, his numbers would jump to 109 targets (5th in 2017), 75 receptions (3rd behind Doyle), 930 yards (3rd behind only Kelce and Gronk) and 7 touchdowns (6th with Tyler Kroft). These numbers would produce 210 PPR points for the full season, ranking him 3rd in total points for the position, 25 less than Kelce in 2017 and 15 less than Gronk. If you look below, these are Hunter Henry's splits with/without Gates in the lineup. The receptions/receiving yards are much less than what I projected out based on the 2017 season, but as you can see, he becomes a much bigger touchdown threat when Gates is gone. 3 games is a small sample, but we have seen Henry produce over the past 2 seasons with another tight end being used, so his value should only increase as the only main tight end receiving threat.
Henry has finished as a TE1 in points per game over the past 2 seasons but should see an increased role heading into 2018. He is currently being taken as TE7, 61st overall. He's going behind guys like Jimmy Graham, who is only a touchdown threat, Greg Olsen, a 33-year-old coming off a foot injury, and Evan Engram, who will be talked about later on. At his position, I see Henry as a value at that pick with potential top 3 tight end upside.
Ricky Seals-Jones - ARZ
Luke Wilson - DET
I don't have as much to say about both these guys individually, so I'll break them down together. Both Willson and Seals-Jones are the only receiving tight end threats in their respective offenses. The Lions lost Eric Ebron, which frees up 86 targets (9th most in NFL), 53 receptions (12th most), and 574 receiving yards (11th most). Ebron wasn't getting these numbers because he was an elite talent, either. Ebron had the 3rd most drops in 2017 and the 2nd most in 2016 among all tight ends, yet still managed to finish as a near TE1 both seasons. Luke Willson, who stands at 6'5 251, is arguably a better athlete than Ebron, ranking in the 93rd percentile for SPARQ-X score.
The departure of Ebron and Darren Fells frees up 7 touchdowns, and although Willson is unproven, he has the potential and opportunity to step in and threaten high-end TE2 status. He's currently being taken at pick 242, TE32, so there is no risk in drafting him, but you'll likely be able to grab him off waivers as a bye-week fill in.
Seals-Jones finds himself in a similar situation for 2018. Jermaine Gresham, Arizona's main pass-catching tight end, ended 2017 with a torn achilles. As of now, he is expected to return week 1 for the offense, but at 30 years old and spending his offseason rehabbing instead of gaining chemistry with his new QB, I don't see him reclaiming the starting job. He leaves behind 46 targets, 11 of which were inside the redzone. With Seals-Jones' size, he should take advantage of these inside the 20, hopefully converting them into 6 points. Also, his new quarterback, Sam Bradford, loves using tight ends. It isn't fair to compare the unproven Seals-Jones to Zach Ertz and Kyle Rudolph, but those are the last two tight ends Bradford has had, and he fed them 104 (through 13 games, projects to 128 for the year) and 124 (in 15 games, projects to 132 for the year) targets, respectively. Bradford does have better targets in Arizona than he did in Philadelphia with Zach Ertz, but he gave Rudolph over 120 targets while having Stefond Diggs and Thielen in Minnesota. In 2016, when David Johnson played, the tight end position only received 85 targets as a whole, but they have lost John Brown, Jaron Brown, and Michael Floyd from the receiving core since then, which frees up 165 targets. JJ Nelson was targeted 74 times in 2016, which should be around the expected amount for Christian Kirk this year. Reports are already coming out saying they expect Seals-Jones to have a much larger role in 2018, and after he showed flashes of excellence in 2018, along with the volume he is set to receive, I believe his current ADP at TE25 is near his floor and carries minimal risk.
Evan Engram - NYG
After finishing as the TE5 in 2017 as a rookie, many believe he is an elite TE1 for the 2018 season. After the draft and the return of other healthy targets, though, he should fall closer towards the back end of the top tight ends list.
In 2017, Engram was targeted 115 times, 2nd most by tight ends, only behind Travis Kelce (122). Engram turned these targets into 64 receptions (6th best), for 722 yards (5th) and 6 touchdowns (7th). These numbers look great, but looking at his efficiency metrics, you'd think otherwise. Engram dropped the most passes among tight ends in 2017 (13!), averaged 1.51 fantasy points/target (29th best among tight ends), and .39 fantasy points per route run (15th). For comparison, Gronk ranked 2nd in both FP/target and FP/rr, and Kelce ranked 6th and 4th, respectively. What's even more surprising is that although his 40-time ranked in the 100th percentile (4.42), he only averaged 1.22 yards of separation per target (30th best). Now, I'm not a Giants fan and I haven't studied his film, but what these numbers tell me is he either tested faster than he plays, or he isn't a great route runner. If he isn't an elite separator, meaning he can't get himself open, then he'll be finding himself in many contested catch situations. He did rank 6th in contested catch rate (converting 41.2% of his contested catch targets for receptions), but his high number of drops and his inability to shed defenders on his routes concerns me (all metrics were obtained from playerprofiler.com).
The other concern I have is that Engram was the Giants' only real option in the passing game for most of the year. Odell missed most of 2017 with an ankle /fibula injury, Shepard played 11 games due to various situations (migraines), and Brandon Marshall missed 11 games with an ankle procedure. Their other options were so bad that Shepard led the team in receiving in only 11 games and Odell ranked 4th after missing 12 weeks. In 2016, when Odell and Shepard played the entire season, they combined for 2,050 yards and 18 touchdowns, while the tight end position that year accounted for 609 yards and 3 touchdowns. Since 2008, only 3 Giants tight ends have reached 600 yards, none of which eclipsed 630. The last tight end to outproduce what Engram did this year was Jeremy Shockey in 2005 when he caught 65 balls for 891 yards and 7 touchdowns. Over his entire career, Eli has shown he doesn't produce elite fantasy tight ends consistently, and with the other options in New York heading into 2018, I don't think this pattern will change much.
A lot of Engram's value came from inside the 20, getting 6 of his 7 touchdowns from this area, 5 of which were inside the 10. In 2016, when both Shepard and OBJ were healthy, they combined for 11 redzone TDs, 9 of which came from inside the tenzone while they only totaled 2 in their injury-ridden 2017 seasons. OBJ has averaged 6 red zone touchdowns and about 11.5 total TDs over his first 3 seasons (not counting injured 2017), and is their best option in the passing game, having the most chemistry/trust with Eli, it is likely Engram will take a step back, not OBJ. Pictured below is proof of this:
Even when under 100%, OBJ diminished Engram's value by over 3 fantasy points per game. They weren't overusing OBJ either, as he was on pace for 100 catches, about 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns, all of which are below his career averages (when rookie and sophomore season projected out to 16 games).
The Giants are in a "win-now" mindset, so they will do whatever they can to put up the most points on offense to help themselves win. In 2017, the entire offense thrived when OBJ was on the field, as the Giants averaged 21 points when he played, doing so against tough defenses in the Chargers (least points allowed/game) and Eagles (4th least points allowed/game) and 13 in the 12 games he was out with injury. This further proves OBJ isn't going anywhere, and, as you can see by the splits, isn't beneficial for Engram's fantasy value.
Lastly, there simply won't be nearly as many targets for Engram in 2018. Last year, Engram commanded a 19.1% target share (115/603). The Giants had the 5th highest pass ratio in the NFL, running the ball only 38% of the time. After drafting Barkley 2nd overall and investing in their o-line, it is extremely likely this number increases from 38 to the low-mid 40s. Let's say next year they fall dead in the middle of the league (for 2017) at a 42% run ratio, this means their targets would fall from 603 to 578. If Odell commands 165 targets (would project to 164.73 if he demands his average 28.5% market share), Shepard gets around 109 (career target market share of 18.9%), Saquon gets 95 (around the Le'Veon/DJ range as an elite pass catcher), and let's say guys like Shane Vereen, Roger Lewis, Tavarres King, Rhett Ellison, Wayne Gallman, etc. get a total of around 125 targets (these 6 alone got 194 last year), this would leave 84 targets left-over for Engram, and with his 55.7% catch rate, this would project out to around 47 catches. I'm no expert, and in no way, shape, or form are my projections accurate, but they are possible.
If Engram's targets do decrease, which is likely, and he doesn't improve his hands, he may find himself in the low-end TE1 range. He finished at the TE5 last year with no real competition, no run game, and constantly playing from behind. With the return of OBJ, a healthy Shepard, and the drafting of Barkley behind an improved o-line, I think last year's finish was his ceiling. He is currently being chosen as TE4, 54th overall, 30 picks ahead of both Delanie Walker and Kyle Rudolph (per mfl10s), two guys who have both finished as at least the TE7 over the past 2 seasons. Instead of taking Engram there, choose a guy like Alex Collins (pick 60), who is currently the starting running back in Baltimore with RB2 upside, and then choose Rudolph 30 picks later. When drafting, it's all about value, so having the combination of Collins/Rudolph instead of Engram/your choice of Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones, will get you headed in the right direction for your 2018 season.
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