“Unpredictable” is the best one-word summation of the game of baseball. On June 22, I was in Las Vegas to attend a Pacific Coast League matchup between the hometown 51s (Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets) and the Salt Lake Bees (Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels). In a game featuring a couple of top prospects on one team and an overflow of Quad-A players on the other side, one would think the main attraction would be the prospects, correct? In this instance, the young stars of tomorrow were completely overshadowed by the offensive light show put on by the Bees. One would also expect plenty of runs with a pitching matchup of Donovan Hand and Luis Diaz on tap, but the scoring was surprisingly one-sided.
While I reserve the right to change my mind as the summer goes on, here are five prominent players in whom I’m not currently intending to invest this season:
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFFC ADP: 7) – Evans had a big fantasy year in 2016, but it was supported more by volume (173 targets, 1st) than skill (7.6 YPT, 28th among the NFL’s 41 100–target WR). Evans’ volume will almost certainly decline this year with free–agent addition DeSean Jackson and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin in the fold. Evans is a good receiver, and his size makes him a good bet for double–digit touchdowns, but he’s not at the A.J. Green/Julio Jones/Odell Beckham Jr. level in real life, and he’s priced as though he is. Don’t expect him to earn his cost unless he leads the league in targets again.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills (NFFC ADP: 8) – He’s getting drafted this high on account of his 50 catches and stellar 5.4 YPC last year, and if he were to repeat those numbers, he’d be well worth it. But McCoy averaged 4.4 and 4.2 YPC, respectively, the two years prior and now has 1,898 career carries during a career dating back to 2009. In other words, his best days are more likely to be behind than ahead of him, and I’d rather bow out a year too soon than a year too late. Moreover, he was sometimes pulled at the goal line for Mike Gillislee last year, and Jonathan Williams could serve as the team’s goal-line back in 2017.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers (NFFC ADP: 9) – Nelson’s recovery from a torn ACL at age 31 was remarkable, but he’s not the same player he was a few years ago before the injury. Nelson averaged at least 15.0 YPC and 10.0 YPT from 2011-2015, but last year managed only 13.0 and 8.3, respectively. Nelson’s value was driven largely by his 32 red-zone targets, the most in the NFL by a mile, resulting in 14 TDs. While Nelson is still among the favorites to lead the league in red-zone looks, he’s unlikely to lap the field by such a large margin (Odell Beckham and Nelson’s teammate Davante Adams were tied for second with 23 in a year where Packers backs combined for just six rushing TDs.) At 32, and having lost a step, Nelson still has a high floor, but isn’t worth a first-round pick.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (NFFC ADP: 13) – Thomas has a nice floor, but he’s on the slow side (4.57 40), won’t run many downfield routes (only one catch of 40-plus yards last year) and isn’t likely to see massive volume even with Brandin Cooks gone. That’s because since he became a Saint in 2006 Drew Brees has always spread the targets around, with the high men being Marques Colston (143 in 2007) for a wideout and Jimmy Graham (149 in 2011) for a tight end. Last year alone, nine receivers had 150-plus targets, more than anyone during Brees’ tenure. And that’s despite Brees racking up far and away the most pass attempts and yards over that span. As such, Thomas is an underdog to crack 140 looks, and for a wideout who averaged a modest 12.4 YPC, that limits his upside.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans (NFFC ADP: 22) – He made this list last year, and while his second-round price is better in 2017, I don’t think he’s dropped enough. For starters, Hopkins is a playmaker and quality receiver, but he’s not an athletic freak like A.J. Green or Julio Jones. Second, while the quarterback play can’t but get better than Brock Osweiler 2016, the combination of Tom Savage and rookie DeShaun Watson might only be marginally so. Finally, Hopkins is neither an elite red-zone target nor a field-stretching deep threat, meaning he’s not a good bet for more than seven or eight TDs on a below-average Texans offense. There’s likely some target-driven floor here, but I’d like more ceiling in my second-round pick.
At the FSTA conference in New York Monday night, I took part in the FSTA draft, a 14-team PPR league with 1-QB, 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-FLEX, 1-TE, 1-K, 1-D and six bench spots. I had the ninth pick. Here are the results:
1.9 Jay Ajayi – the smart pick in a PPR league that starts three WR and a flex is usually a WR, and that meant A.J. Green, who I have ahead of Mike Evans. But I went Ajayi anyway because his upside is higher. The Dolphins intend to get him as much work as he can handle, and he’s reportedly improving as a receiver this offseason. Moreover, there’s no Theo Riddick-type blocking him on third downs. I got some criticism for this pick, with arguments that Ajayi’s production came in bursts, and he was inconsistent as a fantasy performer. The premise seems to be if Ajayi did most of his damage in a few games in 2016, he’ll likely concentrate his production over a few games this year too. Oddly, none of the people offering that critique showed me a study correlating game-to-game consistency from Year X and Year X+1 among workhorse running backs. And Ajayi having three of the NFL’s four 200-yard rushing outputs last year might actually be a good thing: Here’s a list of players who have had as many 200-yard games as Ajayi:
— Chris Raybon (@ChrisRaybon) June 23, 2017
Not many scrubs in that group.
2.6 Amari Cooper – Cooper is a skilled receiver in his prime with a stable quarterback situation. I considered Brandin Cooks and Doug Baldwin.
3.9 Christian McCaffrey – It was Terrelle Pryor, who went one pick earlier, or McCaffrey. Honestly, I thought Jonathan Stewart would be out of the league by 2012, but here he is in 2017. I doubt he has much left, and even if he does, McCaffrey will get at least 100 carries and 50 catches with upside for more. That Cam Newton hasn’t historically thrown much to his backs doesn’t necessarily mean much as he’s never had a weapon out of the backfield like McCaffrey.
4.6 DeVante Parker – I really wanted Carlos Hyde this round, but Ray Flowers took him one pick before me. So I rolled the dice on Parker, the 6-3, 212-pound former 14th overall pick. Parker’s shown flashes over his first two years, but wasn’t in top condition and suffered from nagging injuries. According to his coaches, he’s turned a corner this offseason. Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills are around, but Parker is the singular talent in the group.
5.9 John Brown – Brown was a 1,000-yard, seven-TD WR in 2015, and that was with Michael Floyd siphoning off 89 targets. Floyd is gone, Larry Fitzgerald will be 34 in August, and the team has no TE of which to speak. Moreover, J.J. Nelson weighs only 154 pounds, so he’ll never see a major workload. Brown was a bust last year, but he was hampered by fatigue, and during the offseason, doctors found and removed a cyst on his spine. Since the operation, he’s gotten his energy back and been able to go through his regular offseason routine. Prior to 2016, the Arizona coaching staff compared him to players like Marvin Harrison and T.Y. Hilton.
6.6 Bilal Powell – I made this pick before the news came out that he’d likely backup Matt Forte. Even so, Powell was one of the league’s top PPR backs during the season’s second half, and Forte is 31 and unlikely to carry a huge workload. Powell should catch 45-plus passes again and see his share of carries too.
7.9 Duke Johnson – Another PPR back, capable of catching 60 passes.
8.6 Marcus Mariota – I’d have jumped on Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady in Round 5, but once I missed out, I just wanted one of the solid QBs in the next tier. Mariota in Year 3 fits the bill as the 11th QB off the board.
9.9 Quincy Enunwa – Someone has to catch passes for the Jets.
10.6 Kevin White – The former No. 7 overall pick is 6-3, 216, runs a 4.35 40 and should be given every chance to prove he can be the team’s No. 1 WR.
11.9 Tyler Lockett – Injuries derailed his 2016, but he could be the Seahawks No. 2 WR and primary deep threat.
12.6 Julius Thomas – I needed a TE, and Thomas is one. It’s worth noting he had 24 TDs in 27 games last time he played for Adam Gase.
13.9 Giants Defense – Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins, a rock-solid corps of CBs, the league’s best run-stuffer in Damon Harrison – and I happen to root for them.
14.6 Ryan Tannehill – I already had Parker, Ajayi and Thomas, so why not go all-in on the Dolphins offense? You can mock Tannehill, but under Gase he had 7.7 YPA last year, better than Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. And he gets extra points with his legs.
15.9 Matt Prater – 7-of-7 from 50-plus last year.
16.6 Chris Godwin – honestly I was drunk at that point, and the last couple rounds were dragging on forever. I do like his skills, and if anything happens to Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson is unlikely to handle a massive workload.
Team by position:
QB Marcus Mariota
RB Jay Ajayi/Christian McCaffrey
WR Amari Cooper/DeVante Parker/John Brown
FLEX Duke Johnson
TE Julius Thomas
K Matt Prater
B: Bilal Powell/Quincy Enunwa/Kevin White/Tyler Lockett/Ryan Tannehill/Chris Godwin
A few observations in mid June:
• While it’s possible Brandin Cooks has a lower ceiling in New England given all the mouths to feed in the offense, I plan on owning some shares. Rob Gronkowski is injury prone and never a huge volume guy – 120 targets in 15 games two years ago – and the other targets simply aren’t that good. On a normal team, a player of Julian Edelman’s stature and long-term contributions might command his usual role no matter what, but the Patriots don’t operate that way. If Cooks (23 YO, 4.33 40, 10.0 YPT) vastly outplays Edelman (31 YO, 7.0 YPA), as he should, New England isn’t going to split things evenly just to honor the past. Cooks not only can run all of the short routes Edelman runs, but he can turn some of those catches into big plays. And he gives the Patriots their first legitimate deep threat since Randy Moss.
• Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has been talking up virtually all his players this offseason, floating 350 carries for Jay Ajayi, “a great big year” for DeVante Parker and designing multiple plays for tight end Julius Thomas. This could be garden-variety offseason coach-speak, but there’s reason to take some of it seriously. Last summer, when Parker was hampered by a hamstring injury, Gase blamed Parker, comparing him to a young Demaryius Thomas, a massively talented but injury-prone player early in his career who went on to become a star. That Gase is now praising Parker’s offseason fitness and readiness means it’s probably earned.
As for Ajayi, he was the NFL’s best back after contact last year and had three of the league’s four 200-yard rushing games. He also had 260 carries in 15 games despite not seizing the starting job or cracking 20 carries until Week 6. And while Thomas has been injury-prone and ineffective the last two seasons, when he was with the Broncos he caught 24 TDs in 27 games – with Gase as his offensive coordinator.
With top target Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills, who signed a four-year $32 million deal in March, also in the fold, and scrubby Ryan Tannehill under center, Gase’s optimism for so many breakouts may seem farfetched. But Gase coached Tannehill to 7.7 YPA last year (8th), ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. And Gase was the coordinator for this offense in 2013 where five players scored at least 10 TDs:
While the Dolphins are unlikely to reprise one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time, Gase’s comments are grounded both in the talent of his players and his past experience overseeing a diverse and powerful group. I plan to have shares in Ajayi, Thomas and Parker.
• Sammy Watkins is still only 24 and a dynamic playmaker when healthy. But his 2016 season was derailed by a broken foot suffered last May, and it was problematic to the point that he had to have a second surgery in January. Even now, he’s still limited in practice and not up to full speed. While the team hopes he’s ready for the start of training camp, it’s telling they didn’t pick up his fifth-year contract option (though the Bills had a bizarre offseason during which they fired their GM and most of the staff after the draft.) Bottom line, there’s injury and failure risk all over the place even with healthy, established players (see Robinson, Allen and Hopkins, DeAndre last year), so I don’t see a reason to use a top-three round pick on a player who is additionally battling long-term injury that was so serious the team essentially gave up on his long-term future.
• Fantasy football has so much randomness, you’re usually forced to re-vamp a good portion of your roster by the end of the year. As such, the draft is mostly about getting a few core producers who stay with you from start to finish and around whom you can build. It’s great if one of those is 2016 David Johnson or 2015 Antonio Brown, but for the most part you’re looking for 90-1,000-8 from your WR and 220-40-10 from your RB in the first few rounds. To that end, I plan to have some Amari Cooper and Doug Baldwin types in Round 2 – boring but efficient wideouts, guaranteed targets, in their primes. I’ll swing for the fences later.
• Players I probably won’t own:
Mike Evans – volume-driven 2016, a good, but not great real-life WR.
Alshon Jeffery – new team, injury prone, competition for targets.
DeAndre Hopkins – maybe rookie DeShaun Watson is an upgrade over Brock Osweiler, but by how much?
Sammy Watkins – see above.
Tyreek Hill – Jeremy Maclin is gone, but Hill’s receiving profile (9.7 YPC, 7.1 YPT) looks more like Tavon Austin/Cordarelle Patterson than Cooks/DeSean Jackson.
Keenan Allen – he’s a short-pass specialist now and always hurt.
Ben Roethlisberger – he’s been awful on the road for three years straight, always misses games and nearly retired this offseason, given the savage beating he’s taken.
Marshawn Lynch – everyone likes the personality, so his return has a positive spin, but he’s 31 and runs with an aggressive, hit-absorbing style.
Frank Gore – he’s 34 now, and while I’ve been wrong betting against him every year, it’s never the kind of wrong that hurts you much, i.e., his production is always modest when spread out over a full 16 games.
Doug Martin – why wait three games for a player who isn’t likely to set the world on fire even if everything goes perfectly when he returns?
Marvin Jones – Matt Stafford is now a dink and dunker, just north of Alex Smith, which leaves no room for Jones who needs big plays to thrive
LeGarrette Blount – he was a journeyman before the Patriots picked him up, and the Eagles are not the Patriots.
Matt Stafford – see Jones, Marvin
Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind.
It feels like we just got here, but in truth, the party is almost over. I am referring to the final week of the FanDuel Baseball Championship Qualifier, which takes place Wednesday at 7 P.M. ET.