Sammy Watkins: This Year’s Tavon Austin?

– How great was it to have an actual football game on this past weekend? Sunday just felt different knowing there was a game being played that evening. On the downside, Sammy Watkins was held without a catch on three targets in the Hall of Fame Game vs the Giants. In fairness, it’s not as if those targets were all catchable. Even though you would’ve liked to see him touch the ball a few times, you can’t overreact to this, right? It’s just too soon to judge, not enough of a sample size. Well, that just isn’t the way fantasy football works-we have to draft now.

The fourth overall pick in the draft is entering the league with as much hype as any wide receiver since 2011, as he is widely acclaimed as the best WR prospect since AJ Green and Julio Jones. Eventually, he should live up to that billing. However, we have to temper our expectations of his immediate impact because he is not nearly as pro ready as AJ Green. I realize that’s almost an unfair statement, as Green was probably more ready for the NFL game than any other receiver coming out of college in the last decade. Here’s the thing, though: Watkins is raw.

The Bills rookie certainly is a freak athlete in the same mold as Julio Jones, albeit a smaller mold at 6-1, 211 pounds. And he will make plays, if for no other reason than his incredible athleticism. He can literally beat people with pure speed and explosiveness at this point, and has been doing so on a regular basis throughout training camp thus far. With that being said, Watkins just isn’t used to running routes to get open. In college, the former Clemson Tiger caught 45% of all his completions behind the line of scrimmage on some form of a screen. Forty. Five. Percent. To his credit, he averaged over nine yards after the catch; but he caught the ball just 5.28 yards from the line of scrimmage on average (for a reference, Brandin Cooks’ was over 10, almost double). You saw the effects of this on that deep pass down the left sideline against the Giants as Watkins failed to keep the five yard box alive. When you watch the Bills this season, you will occasionally see his inabilities as a route-runner surface via failing to stack the cornerback, boxing himself into the sideline, running through open zones, etc.

Based on Tavon Austin’s disappointing rookie season, the hope was that rookie wideouts would come at more of a discount this year. While it’s highly unlikely Sammy Watkins will fall as short of expectations as Austin did, his current rank of No. 83 overall/No. 31 WR does leave the door open for such an occurrence. His quarterback being EJ Manuel (to be fair, still a relative unknown-but it’s not exactly Julio Jones coming into the league with Matt Ryan as his QB) opens that door just a little more, especially after that 2/7 19-yard performance Sunday. Watkins has the ability to be a good/great route runner because he is so quick in and out of breaks, he’s just not there yet. Also, rookie wideouts have been known to struggle because there is such a steep learning curve in the passing game. As a football fan, I certainly hope that isn’t the case. After all, who doesn’t want to see what Watkins and that 4.39 speed can do in the open field every Sunday?

– Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno (knee) was taken off the physically unable to perform list Wednesday. The sixth-year veteran participated in practice for the first time since having minor knee surgery following minicamp. He was limited to individual drills today, but a good sign considering he spent the first couple weeks of camp on the PUP list rehabbing. The goal for Moreno is to be ready for the regular season opener, and it appears he is on track to do so. However, it seems unlikely he will play much this preseason, if at all.

This is Moreno’s first season in South Beach, signing a one year-$3 million contract with the team during free agency. The former first round pick spent his first five seasons with the Denver Broncos, failing to live up to expectations as the 12th overall pick in 2009 until this past season. In 2013, the former Georgia Bulldog finished fifth at his position in fantasy points with nearly 1,600 total yards and 13 touchdowns. The market was much softer for the veteran runner than many expected following the career year-general managers must have realized that RBs playing with Peyton Manning get to run against nickel and dime defenses all game long. The assumption was Moreno was brought in to start for the Fins because of the well-documented struggles in the running game. The offensive line was putrid, Lamar Miller failed to live up to the lofty expectations and Daniel Thomas was, well…Daniel Thomas. However, Knowshon Moreno gave his competition an opening by showing up to OTAs out of shape. Lamar Miller has seized the opportunity and has been running with the starters in practice ever since. At this time, Miller would be the back to own in that backfield; but with Head Coach Joe Philbin in charge, that situation is fluid.

 

– With Jermaine Gresham out with an ailing back thus far, Tyler Eifert has been thriving in Bengals training camp. Gresham opened training camp on the PUP list, finally returning to practice on Monday. In the meantime, Eifert has been destroying the vaunted Bengals defense according to cincyjungle.com, consistently hauling in long touchdowns from Andy Dalton. While sifting through the noise is part of our job during camp, feel free to be cautiously optimistic when your evaluation of the player corresponds to the noise. After all, rave reviews of the player are better than the alternative.

As fantasy footballers have come to realize, year two is typically when tight ends break out. With Eifert having a fairly quiet rookie season (39/445/2 while working in a rotation with Gresham), much is expected in Cincy this year from the 21st overall selection in the 2013 draft. New offensive coordinator Hugh Jackson has shown he knows how to get the most out of the TE position during his time in Oakland-the guy did get Zach Miller to the Pro Bowl, after all. And in Tyler Eifert, Jackson now has a 6-6 250 pound athlete to work with.

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What really separates the Notre Dame product from other big-bodied tight ends is not only his 4.65 speed, but his ability to get in and out of breaks quickly and smoothly with that big frame.The second year pro could be especially effective in the red zone given his height, 35.5-inch vertical leap, and nearly 77-inch wingspan. If you miss out on the top tight ends early in the draft, grabbing an upside guy like Eifert in the later rounds is a solid play. With his current ADP in the 140s and ranked No. 17 at the tight end position, the pick costs you next to nothing and could prove to be one of the better values of your draft if he breaks out in 2014 as many of the Cincinnati faithful predict.

 

– Much to everyone’s surprise (if there was a sarcasm font I would be using it right now), Hakeem Nicks is dealing with soreness in his foot. Nicks chose to bet on himself by signing a one-year deal for $3.975 million with the Indianapolis Colts during free agency this past March. With his new home comes the promise of a fresh start, but is also accompanied by the responsibility of the sixth-year pro needing to learn a new offense and getting comfortable with a new quarterback for the first time since his rookie season. I think football fans everywhere are hoping the change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered for the former Giant.

However, Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton had less than glowing remarks, saying “I don’t know if I can say that I’ve seen enough…he is still working to get himself in game shape”. Nicks has dealt with a litany of injuries over the past couple years, with the foot being the primary ailment over that time. While he will continue to practice, this is hardly reassuring for fantasy owners. The former first rounder has never played a full 16-game slate in any of his five seasons in the league.

Drafted 29th overall in 2009 out of North Carolina, Nicks blossomed in his second and third pro seasons (seventh most fantasy points among WRs in 2010 and 12th in 2011) catching passes from Eli Manning in New York. However, after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, he has been unable to crack that mark the past two years. Injuries were the real story in 2012, as he broke his foot in OTAs and aggravated the injury during his 199-yard performance in week 2 against Tampa Bay. After the injury-plagued 2012 campaign, a rebound was expected the following year. Even though the 8.9 yards/target and 16.0 yards/catch were good, the year was well below expectations and viewed as a rather large disappointment in the fantasy community. Playing in 15 games, the 896-yard season total wasn’t quite Dwayne Bowe-level awful. But watching the games you could see that Hakeem Nicks wasn’t himself in 2013 as he lacked explosion and, at times, passion. And, somewhat amazingly, the 6-1 205 pounder had ZERO touchdowns on 56 receptions (101 targets).

Whether last year’s sub-par performance was an indication of the contract situation getting the best of him, injuries affecting his play, or the 2013 Giants’ offense just being a complete disaster is up for debate. The foot issue is a minor concern at this time, and the expectation is that Hakeem Nicks will be in uniform for the Indy’s first preseason tilt Thursday against the Jets. Prospective fantasy owners should watch closely to see how Nicks is used in this offense and if he has established a rapport with QB Andrew Luck if they plan on spending a pick on the former Giant in the latter half of the draft.

 

– On the injury front, Desean Jackson suffered an ankle sprain during practice today. Speaking with reporters afterward, Head Coach Jay Gruden said Jackson “got cleated…twisted his ankle just a hair” and called the injury a “fluke”. Jackson made a cut to the inside and suddenly starting hopping on his right foot, according to the Washington Post. The seventh-year veteran hobbled over to the sideline to ice his ankle, unable to put pressure on that right foot. Oddly enough, today was essentially just a walk-through session for the Redskins. Washington has been practicing with the Patriots this week in advance of their first preseason game against each other Thursday night. While Jackson is officially listed as questionable, fans shouldn’t expect to see the receiver out there tomorrow night. Desean Jackson’s first appearance with his new team will likely have to wait, but he figures to be a big part of that offense in 2014. His presence alone should work wonders for QB Robert Griffin III and that offense as a whole (23rd in the NFL with just 20.9 ppg in 2013). The Cal product provides next-level speed and is coming off career highs across the board of 82 catches, 1,332 yards and 9 touchdowns.

 

– With Marquess Wilson on the shelf after breaking his clavicle this week, old familiar face Santonio Holmes worked out for the Bears on Tuesday. Somewhat surprising that Holmes hasn’t landed on a roster already this offseason considering he’s only 30 years of age and the need at receiver in places like Carolina and Cleveland. Coming out of Ohio State, he was the first receiver off the board at 25th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. Even though the eight-year veteran has largely underachieved throughout his pro career (just one 1,000-yard season to his credit), he is still a highly talented wide receiver with a lot to offer NFL teams.

His poor attitude has been something that has surfaced in both Pittsburgh and New York over the years, and could be the biggest reason he still finds himself on the unemployment line. The question of Holmes’ durability would be right up there as reason number two, as the WR has missed 17 games since 2012 due to Lisfranc and hamstring injuries. After the Jets traded for the 5-11 192 pound speedster in 2010, Rex Ryan and company thought they had stolen a top tier wide receiver for franchise QB Mark Sanchez. However, the former Buckeye severely disappointed in his time there, never exceeding 52 receptions or 746 yards in any of his four seasons in New York.

Interesting choice when the Browns signed Miles Austin over Santonio Holmes after the Josh Gordon news broke, but you can’t blame them for placing a premium on positive veteran leadership in light of recent events. With his days as a number one option for an NFL team in the past, the 2009 Super Bowl MVP would be an ideal fit in Chicago should the Bears offer him a contract. With twin towers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey out wide, Holmes would have oodles of space to operate. Being quick, shifty, and a polished route runner, he would be a great fit as a slot receiver in Chicago. This would be a significant upgrade over Marquess Wilson if the potential signing comes to fruition, improving the Bears offense as a whole. If you were targeting Marquess Wilson in deeper leagues because of his role in that elite offense, you should feel even better about Santonio Holmes.

 

– The Florida Times-Union reports that Jacksonville running back Toby Gerhart will not play in Friday’s preseason game vs Tampa Bay. Gerhart has been sidelined the past few days from Jaguars practice and is listed as day-to-day with a hip flexor injury. The former Stanford Cardinal is expected to be the team’s workhorse in the backfield this season, so not shocking that he would be held out as a precaution after experiencing tightness in his hip this week.

The Jags’ signing of Gerhart to be the feature back came as somewhat of a surprise this offseason, only because he had such limited work in four years as the backup in Minnesota to Adrian Peterson. Of course, when you have a superstar like AP, hard to blame the Vikings for not giving many carries to anyone else in that backfield. Toby Gerhart was a 2nd round pick back in 2010 after rushing for 1,851 yards and 28 TDs his senior season at Stanford. In limited action as a pro, the 27-year old has averaged 4.7 yards/carry-showing the Jaguars enough to give him a 3 year/$10.5 million contract in free agency this past March (and really didn’t sign or draft anyone of note to compete with him in that backfield).

While most fantasy pundits don’t expect huge numbers from him this season, the 5th year veteran should be a solid RB2 for your team this year. As Chris Liss has indicated in a recent article, one of the four components to fantasy value is opportunity/role. And when you are a starting running back in the NFL and will likely see the vast majority of your team’s carries, you’re fantasy relevant. Because of Gerhart’s size and running style we don’t think of him as a great receiver out of the backfield, but he flashed more ability as a pass-catcher in his role as the 3rd down back in Minnesota than one would expect. Even though he won’t be on any of my fantasy teams this season (I personally just see more of a BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Rashard Mendenhall type of back there-relevant only because of his role as starter-not #20 RB/#32 overall value as he is currently ranked), fantasy owners should expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 rushing yards and eight touchdowns by sheer volume alone. Toby Gerhart isn’t a sexy pick in fantasy drafts, but he figures to be an effective choice nonetheless.