Wednesday, July 4, 2018
I again wrote far more than I expected to—these mailbags are really bringing out my inner novelist—so I’ll keep the intro short and sweet. I hope there’s air conditioning wherever you’re reading this because I’ve spent the past week sweating buckets. My dog has a million beds and it’s too hot for all of them. The last time I saw him he was hiding under a living room chair, wishing he’d been born to a nice family in Antarctica. Spending my entire life in the northeast, I’ve come to accept the extremes of Mother Nature. It seems like we either have a foot of snow on the ground or it’s so hot you want to stick your head in the freezer (I’ve tried it—very refreshing). None of this has much to do with football but it was too long to put in a tweet, so I thought I’d rant about the weather here for a change.
I was expecting to hear crickets when I asked for your responses this week—I assumed most of you would either be on vacation already or planning the menu for your 4th of July festivities. But you guys came through again with another great batch of fantasy questions. So let’s crank the AC and think cold thoughts as we sift through a holiday edition of Bump and Run.
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Who is the running back to own in Green Bay this year?
I’ve been putting this question off for weeks (trust me—not a mailbag has gone by without at least one reader inquiring about the state of Green Bay’s backfield), because frankly, I don’t know the answer. But I suppose I can’t keep the masses waiting much longer. Usually in a situation like this, I’ll start writing in hopes that at some point, I’ll achieve a long-awaited moment of clarity. Worth a shot, right? (*takes deep breath*) Alright, let’s see if this does the trick.
In the first year of the post-Eddie Lacy Era in Green Bay, the Packers used a three-man committee … well sort of. What really happened was an injury-facilitated relay race with Ty Montgomery—a converted wide receiver—passing the baton to Aaron Jones—a fifth-round rookie out of UTEP—who later handed the reigns to fellow rookie Jamaal Williams—a fourth-rounder who played his college ball at BYU. Over the course of last year’s 16-game slate, all three were available on just seven occasions. Montgomery missed the most time, sitting out Green Bay’s final seven games with a wrist injury (broken ribs also sidelined him for Week 5 at Dallas). Williams was the only one who stayed healthy the entire year, leading the backfield with 441 offensive snaps.
In my initial rankings for the magazine, I had Williams ranked highest—he was 30th compared to No. 38 for Jones and No. 55 for Montgomery—but now I’m having second thoughts. My reasoning for putting Williams ahead of Jones was simple—volume. It’s a small sample size but over the final month of 2017 (sidebar: Green Bay’s entire offensive output from last year should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt because most of it came without Aaron Rodgers, who was out with a broken collarbone), Williams and Jones shared a field together four times. In those games, Williams out-touched Jones 70-12, out-gained him by 245 yards from scrimmage (329-84), out-snapped him 202-40 and won the touchdown battle by a convincing 5-1 margin.
That would suggest the coaching staff favors Williams, though it was actually Jones who led the backfield until he got hurt in Week 10. He sat out two games with an MCL injury and played sparingly upon his return. When healthy, Jones was a far superior player, averaging a robust 5.5 yards per carry (Williams averaged 3.6) while earning stellar marks from ProFootballFocus (No. 14 run grade out of 60 qualifiers at running back). Jones admittedly struggled in pass protection (No. 47 blocking grade among halfbacks), which may explain why he was used so infrequently down the stretch. Still, Jones was, by almost every measure, a more efficient and better back than Williams in 2017.
By the end of last year Williams was an every-week starter in fantasy but most of his success came from volume (20.4 touches per game over his last eight contests). He and Jones are about the same weight, so neither player has a clear edge on the goal line. Both players were duds as receivers last year—Williams was especially poor, earning PFF’s fifth-worst pass-catching grade among running backs—which means Montgomery will continue to be involved on passing downs.
Based on last year’s usage, I would still consider Williams the favorite to lead the backfield early in 2018, though if Jones can improve his blocking (he’s made that a point of emphasis this offseason), he could put a dent in Williams’ workload or even surpass him. Game flow should be more favorable with Rodgers back in the saddle this year, which makes both players worthy of a mid-round investment. Evan Silva advocated drafting both players in his Packers preview last month and stacking Williams and Jones could prove especially effective in best-ball formats. Montgomery would seem to be the odd man out in Green Bay’s backfield circus, though his receiving expertise may make him attractive in PPR settings.
What are your expectations for Saquon Barkley this year?
You guys must have Saquon Fever because I received several Barkley inquiries this week. I’m usually on the balcony heckling with Statler and Waldorf, but even I can’t find anything remotely negative to say about Barkley. I was against New York picking him because I felt the Giants needed to draft a successor to Eli Manning, who is hanging by a thread. But maybe that’s because I was subconsciously hoping the Penn State alum would still be available for Cleveland at No. 4.
Either way, Barkley was far and away the best prospect in this year’s draft and should be an immediate difference-maker in fantasy. Barkley checks off all the boxes—he’s big enough to handle goal line work (just look at him in ESPN’s Body Issue), fast enough to hit the holes (if you missed it, he blazed a 4.40 forty at the Combine) and is also one of the more adept pass-catchers in this year’s draft class (that’s why you’ve been hearing all the David Johnson and LeSean McCoy comparisons). He fills a position of need for the Giants, who averaged a paltry 96.8 rushing yards per game (seventh-worst) with Orleans Darkwa, Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins leading the team’s backfield committee in 2017.
New York’s O line is nothing to brag about, though the Giants did get better with the additions of highly-compensated left tackle Nate Solder and second-round guard Will Hernandez. A healthy Odell Beckham should make New York more competitive this year, eliminating some of the game-script concerns that dogged Giants running backs in 2017. And when the Giants do find themselves in catch-up mode, which is bound to happen in a loaded NFC East, Barkley has the pass-catching chops to remain on the field even when New York is playing from behind.
The biggest threat to Barkley’s workload is veteran Jonathan Stewart, who, even at age 30, still managed to vulture seven touchdowns in Carolina last year. However, J-Stew only topped 70 yards rushing on two occasions while averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry (44th out of 48 qualified running backs). Stewart is a plodder at this stage of his career and shouldn’t see more than a handful of weekly touches. Translation: Barkley owners have nothing to worry about.
It’s always risky to use an early-round pick on a player with no experience but as the crown jewel of what appears to be a reasonably strong crop of first-year running backs, I’d take the plunge with Barkley if he’s available around the seventh or eighth pick. He’s my RB6 (one behind Alvin Kamara and ahead of Kareem Hunt at RB7), for those who take stock in my opinions.
Will Jordan Reed be a top-five tight end in PPR if he stays healthy?
I’ve always rooted for Reed because he and I share a home state (we both rep the 860), but unfortunately your hypothetical falls flat because we already know he will NOT stay healthy. Why do I say that with such conviction? Because he has literally NEVER stayed healthy. The closest he’s come to playing a full season came in 2015 when Reed logged a career-high 14 games. The former Florida Gator was a monster that year, finishing second among tight ends in both catches (87) and touchdowns (11). However, he was wholly ineffective last season, totaling 211 yards on a career-worst 7.8 yards per catch in only six contests.
I don’t think swapping out Kirk Cousins for Alex Smith will have too much bearing on Reed’s fantasy production, though it’s worth noting that Smith targeted tight ends on 33.7 percent of his passes last season (Cousins only threw to them 23.3 percent of the time). As frustrating as last year was for Reed (you may remember him from my infamous thunderstorm team), his performance over the previous two seasons should give fantasy owners reason for optimism. Reed averaged 7.73 targets per game during that stretch, which computes to 123.7 targets over a 16-game regular season. The only tight end who came even close to that figure last year was Travis Kelce (123 on the nose). With Ryan Grant and Terrelle Pryor on new teams and Vernon Davis another year removed from his prime, it stands to reason that Reed’s workload will increase.
That gives Reed an appealing floor at a thin fantasy position, though it’s hard to get excited about a player who has suited up for just 18-of-32 games over the past two years. Betting on Reed to play all 16 games is a fool’s errand but in the unlikely event that the injury bug misses him, a top-five finish is certainly within the realm of possibility. I currently have him sandwiched between Kyle Rudolph and Trey Burton as my TE9.
What’s the likelihood Dez Bryant signs before fantasy drafts start up?
Pretty good, I’d say. Someday when Dez gets his token 30 for 30, 2017 will not be among the highlights. Bryant low-key stunk, leading the league in drops while showing alarmingly little chemistry with Dak Prescott. Last year was sort of a throwaway year for the entire Dallas offense with Ezekiel Elliott suspended and stud tackle Tyron Smith clearly operating at less than 100 percent, but the truth is that Dez has been in decline for quite some time now. Bryant has been held under 1,000 yards in each of his last three seasons and hasn’t reached double-digit touchdowns since 2014.
None of that sounds promising and I’m sure it hasn’t been lost on fantasy owners that Bryant is still looking for work almost three months after his release (which, to be fair, was largely motivated by his enormous cap number). But let’s not put a nail in his coffin just yet. Bryant may not win as many contested balls as he used to, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive possession receiver in the vein of late-career Larry Fitzgerald, who has made a seamless transition to slot receiver. And though it seems like Dez has been around forever, he’s still only 29. Best of all, Bryant, who has seen more than his fair share of bad-luck injuries, actually stayed healthy last year, appearing in all 16 games for only the fourth time in his career.
He’s not a No. 1 anymore but Bryant is still more than capable of playing in this league and should resurface around the time training camp begins later this month. It may feel like Bryant is getting the cold shoulder from teams, but apparently, that’s not the case. Dez turned down a multi-year offer from Baltimore in April and has taken several calls since (this comes via NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport), but is holding out for the right fit. Specifically, Bryant wants to play for a winner and would prefer a one-year prove-it deal that would allow him to rebuild his value and parlay that success into a long-term deal next offseason. I’m not sure what team it will be with, but I can guarantee we haven’t seen the last of Dez Bryant.
Again, this is another impossible question to answer because Mahomes has started just one career game and Hill didn’t even play in it. But in theory, it would seem to be an ideal pairing. Alex Smith is a better downfield passer than he gets credit for, but he’s not the gunslinger that Mahomes is. Tyreek may be the most dangerous deep threat in the NFL—he’s certainly the fastest—and I suspect he and Mahomes will connect on a number of long touchdowns this year. You pretty much knew what you were getting from Smith, a polished veteran with over a decade of NFL experience, while Mahomes (22) may encounter some rough patches along the way. That gives Tyreek a little more week-to-week volatility, but I think the counting stats will still be there in the end.
The addition of Sammy Watkins means Hill will have more competition for targets this year, which is a little worrying since Tyreek only logged double-digit targets in one of 15 games last season. But even with a somewhat abbreviated workload last year, Hill still demonstrated a reasonable floor, eclipsing 60 yards receiving on 10 occasions. Not many players can make the leap from gadget guy to go-to receiver, but Hill made that transition seem effortless. He’s an electrifying talent and KC would be foolish not to feature him. Even with Watkins absorbing some of the red-zone work (he led the Rams with eight touchdown receptions a year ago), Hill is still a good bet to return WR1 value.