2019 Fantasy Football Draft Prep: The biggest offseason NFL storylines heading into training camp
It was a long offseason, but with training camp opening and preseason games on the horizon, the NFL is back. Heath Cummings gets you up to speed on the biggest offseason storylines.
We talk every year about how the term 'offseason' is a misnomer in the NFL. Is there ever a time when this league doesn't have the spotlight? This year has been no different. We've got coaching changes, monster trades and one offensive juggernaut falling apart while a new one forms. We lost the greatest tight end of all time and an offensive genius came out of retirement. Did another come out of college?
The 2019 'offseason' has been a blast. Now it's time to figure out what it means for Fantasy as draft season kicks into high gear.
Nobody knows if Todd Gurley is healthy
One storyline that's seemingly featured a never-ending cliffhanger has been Todd Gurley's knee. We've had twists and turns, but we still know virtually nothing about the current state of Gurley's knee, plans for how much he'll touch the football or the efficiency we should expect from Gurley when he does play.
That's really super helpful when we're talking about a player who both finished as the best player in Fantasy the past two seasons and was outperformed by C.J. Anderson over his team's past four games. Super helpful.
What we do know is the Rams traded up to get Darrell Henderson in the NFL Draft and there is . We can speculate the Rams would like to have Gurley in better shape for the playoffs in 2019 than he was in 2018, which would lead one to expect a reduction in the 22.5 touches per game Gurley averaged last year. Henderson's best suited for work in the passing game, so it seems likely Gurley's receptions will be impacted more than his carries.
From a Fantasy perspective, the possibility of Gurley staying healthy all year is awesome but could lead to an interesting situation with him and Henderson. If Gurley is a second-round pick and Henderson goes in the sixth, it may be tough for either of them to deliver value without injury, especially with the losses the Rams offensive line has suffered.
In PPR, I wouldn't draft Gurley before Round 3, and I wouldn't take Henderson until Round 8.
Melvin Gordon is a training camp no-show
We almost got through the offseason without a significant contract dispute. Then Gordon gave 2018 Le'Veon Bell drafters flashbacks. Gordon reportedly wants a new contract or wants to be traded. We have video evidence of Gordon talking about supporting Bell in 2018. The Chargers are not known for their free-spending ways. This could get ugly.
As of the start of camp, we've dropped Gordon to the start of the second round just because of the current risk of him missing time. We don't know whether the Chargers will offer him something he finds acceptable and we don't know if Gordon will actually sit out games (or the entire year) if they don't.
If we get to the start of preseason games and there is no resolution in sight, it would not be a surprise to see Gordon fall into the third round or further. If Gordon were traded it would most likely be to a place where he would have less value.
Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson both figure to be the biggest beneficiaries if Gordon is not on the field for Week 1. Ekeler is worth a mid-round pick and could have value in PPR even if Gordon shows up. Jackson is more of a late-round flier, but it is worth noting that he looked better than Ekeler at the end of last season. If there's no Gordon, I fully expect this will be a committee approach.
The Killer B's Broke Up
This didn't come as too much of a surprise, but it's shocking when you put it in perspective. From 2013 through 2018, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown accounted for 15,195 yards and scored 109 touchdowns for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2019, they'll both be in different uniforms. The Fantasy implications of this are massive and far reaching. In Pittsburgh and beyond.
For the first time in years, it's tough to trust Ben Roethlisberger as a surefire No. 1 quarterback. In the past six years, he's only played one game without either Brown and/or Bell on the field.
At the same time, this presents an opportunity and a challenge for both James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. They both have the potential to finish in the top five at their position this season, but they'll both see more attention than they ever have. Smith-Schuster will have to deal with consistent double teams for the first time in his young career. Conner will either have to do more in the passing game or face more eight-man boxes, something teams wouldn't have dared to do with Brown on the field.
Brown heads to Oakland to try to prove he can continue to be the most productive wide receiver in the NFL without an elite quarterback. He should elevate Derek Carr, though not to the point you'd consider starting him week in and week out. We'd also expect Brown's efficiency will suffer, which could easily drop him outside of the top eight receivers in Fantasy.
Bell landed in New York and there are far more questions about him. New head coach Adam Game has a history of using a committee at running back and has talked about how they'll use Bell heavily in the passing game but may limit his carries more than the Steelers did. Bell will be in a worse offense, with a worse line and likely a smaller workload. He could still be a No. 1 running back but he's no longer in contention to be the No. 1 running back.
The Browns Win the (Offseason) Super Bowl!
While the Steelers were dismantling their star-studded offense, the Browns were building one of their own. We'd already seen how exciting Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb could be with Freddie Kitchens running the offense, but the addition of Odell Beckham sent expectations through the roof.
Mayfield will enter 2019 with arguably the best set of weapons in the league. Beckham has averaged 92 receiving yards per game in his career and scored double-digit touchdowns three times already. And he did that with a declining Eli Manning throwing him the football. If he sees the same target share he did in New York, he could be the best receiver in Fantasy.
Jarvis Landry is an excellent secondary option who should have no trouble getting open with Beckham drawing attention. He may see his target share dwindle, but that already happened when Kitchens took over in 2018. An increase in efficiency could put him squarely in the top 20 receivers.
Chubb topped 1,000 total yards and scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie despite not starting until Week 7. Opposing defenses are going to be so terrified of this passing game they won't dare stack the box to stop Chubb. If that's not enough, the Browns signed Kareem Hunt, who will be available after his eight-game suspension is served. All Hunt has done is average 110 yards per game and score 25 touchdowns in his first 27 NFL games.
With these weapons (plus David NJoku!) Mayfield is a consensus top-five quarterback entering the year and could challenge Patrick Mahomes for No. 1 overall if things go right. He was outstanding in his final 10 starts of 2018 and looks like a future star.
Arians, Kingsbury Arrive to Save The Day
There are always a lot of coaching changes in the NFL offseason, but this year felt different with how Fantasy-relevant the teams and moves were. We'll break these down one-by-by one, leaving out the Browns because you already know how I excited I am about them. I'll start with the moves I find most encouraging and move towards the less certain. We'll finish with a couple I have a hard time imagining will have a positive impact for Fantasy.
Buccaneers hire Bruce Arians
This is by far the most exciting change of the season. The weird thing is, the Buccaneers were fantastic for Fantasy in 2018 and they might be even better now. That will mostly center around how quickly and how well Arians meshes with Jameis Winston. Winston has put up enormous numbers in games he's started and finished but he's never quite put it all together for a full Fantasy season.
Six times in his 14-year career, Arians has led a top-three offense in total yardage. In his last two seasons in Arizona, the team was in the top five in pass attempts. A lot of those attempts went to David Johnson and the Buccaneers don't have an obvious running back to fill that role. But they do have something Arians never had, an elite tight end in O.J. Howard. Don't expect a great mind like Arians to be too stuck in the past with how he distributes the ball; he'll get the ball to his best playmakers.
Arians' arrival, coupled with the loss of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, could mean big things for Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Don't be surprised if they're one of the best receiving duos in Fantasy.
Finally, the running back situation could be one of the most profitable on Draft Day. Peyton Barber enters camp as the starter but there has been offseason buzz about Ronald Jones, who has a higher ceiling. Even undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson earned praise during OTAs. If any back grabs onto the feature role in this offense and holds onto it for 14 games, I would expect them to be a top-20 running back.
Cardinals hire Kliff Kingsbury
This may have been the second-most exciting hire of the offseason, but I'm not sure any of us know exactly what to make of it. Kingsbury spent six years as the head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders and ran a very fun spread offense. The offense was pass heavy, and the targets were receiver heavy. Maybe most importantly, Kingsbury's offenses are fast-paced. The Cardinals ran just 902 plays in 2018 so any type of pace at all would be a massive improvement.
Of course, the Cardinals didn't just replace their head coach. They have new weapons everywhere. No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray enters 2019 as a boom-or-bust Fantasy option. He makes big plays with his arm, but his size and experience loom as question marks.
They also drafted a trio of receivers in Hakeem Butler, Andy Isabella, and KeeSean Johnson to go along with Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald. If one of these guys could emerge as a true No. 1, they could have instant Fantasy appeal, but it does seem more likely Kingsbury's offense spreads the ball around, limiting everyone's upside.
Finally, we'll have to wait and see how Kingsbury affects the value of David Johnson. Johnson was a top-12 back in 2018 by virtue of health and volume. Kingsbury's system could open more holes, but it could also limit Johnson's rushing opportunity.
Packers hire Matt LaFleur
We'd probably have been more excited about the Packers hiring LaFleur before he spent a year as the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. But at the very least he should bring more creativity than Mike McCarthy.
LaFleur has talked about wanting to run the ball more and it's true that the last three offenses he's been part of have been more run-heavy than the Packers were last year. That would be good news for Aaron Jones, who has been extremely efficient when he's been available. It's less clear what that would mean for Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams.
Rodgers has attempted at least 572 passes in each of his last three full seasons and Adams broke out last year at least partly because of a career-best 169 targets. Rodgers could make up for a small dip in attempts if his touchdown rate bounces back and he's more efficient on a per-attempt basis with more open targets. It seems more likely to be a small downgrade for Adams, who may have to share more than he did in 2018. He'll still be a top-10 receiver, but it could be tough for him to be top five again.
Bengals hire Zac Taylor
The Sean McVay coaching tree continued to grow when the Bengals tabbed Taylor, who enters this job with a very limited history of calling plays. What we do know about Taylor screams West Coast offense, with a relatively normal run-pass split. The positive is it shouldn't take much for Andy Dalton and the rest of the offense to pick up what Taylor wants to do.
The only real question I have about Taylor's offense is what the target split looks like between A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon. We've seen Green be an elite receiver before, but his two best seasons came when he saw 164-plus targets. If he's in the 130-140 range, he may be more of a high-end No. 2, but if he's a target hog it will be tough for Boyd to match last year's production. And Mixon has elite upside, but not if he sees a downgrade from last year's four targets per game.
Dolphins hire Brian Flores
We're still in the mystery section of the coaching changes, but we've also transitioned into the less-than-optimistic section. Flores has been with the Patriots for the past 15 years, coaching the linebackers for the past three. He may turn out to be a very good head coach, but he does not have a resume that screams Fantasy upside. He doesn't have the roster either.
The biggest decision Flores will make this offseason is whether to use Kenyan Drake like a featured running back. The one time in Drake's career he's been given the chance to carry the load, he was fantastic. In the final five games of the 2017 season, he saw 21 touches per game and picked up 594 yards. Unfortunately, Flores' opening statements on the subject did not sound encouraging.
Normally when we have a first-year coach with no play-calling experience, we can look to his offensive coordinator for a clue, but Chad O'Shea has been coaching for more than 20 years and has never been a play-caller himself. The Dolphins are a black box in terms of offensive approach and that box contains few exciting Fantasy options anyway.
Josh Rosen got a raw deal in his first year in Arizona, with very little help from the coaching staff or his weapons. Miami looks like it could be a repeat.
Broncos hire Vic Fangio
Like Flores, Fangio is a defensive coach, albeit an older and more experienced one. He's spent 19 years as a defensive coordinator. The only offensive tendencies I'd ascribe to Fangio would be a desire to protect the ball and protect the defense. I certainly wouldn't expect they'll be one of the more pass-happy teams in the league, and that makes sense with Joe Flacco at quarterback, at least until Drew Lock is deemed ready.
What also makes sense is hiring a coordinator who runs a Gary Kubiak-like offense in Rich Scangarello. Flacco and Scangarello have gotten off on the right foot according to early reports. It will be a West Coast offense, and I would assume a fairly conservative one at that. That should be good news for Phillip Lindsay and could be a boon to an underneath route runner like DaeSean Hamilton.
Jets hire Adam Gase
It's weird that Gase is the second-most experienced "offensive coach" hired this offseason and he's the guy I'm most concerned about. It's especially weird when you consider how excited we were for the impact Gase was going to have in Miami.
The Dolphins were one of the slowest offensive teams in football the last two seasons in Miami. They never finished in the top half of the league in total points or yards and only once in rushing or passing yards under Gase.
The most important Fantasy piece in New York is Le'Veon Bell. Gase's impact on Bell will come down to how often the team targets its running backs and whether they employ Bell as a workhorse or go with a committee approach like Gase did in Miami. He's implied he wants to throw the ball to Bell often but has also indicated they'll spell him in the running game.
As for Darnold and his receivers, Gase's history is in conflict with the Jets talent. In Miami, Jarvis Landry was the only consistent Fantasy receiver and it's hard to imagine a receiver less like Landry than deep threat Robby Anderson.
Gronk Rides Off Into The Sunset
First, let's start with the obvious. This is terrible. Gronk is the greatest tight end to ever play the game and football won't be as fun without him. It almost certainly won't be as fun for Tom Brady.
Over the past eight years, Brady has been about 20 percent worse without Rob Gronkowski on the field. He's thrown for fewer yards, averaged fewer touchdowns, and hasn't been as efficient when Gronkowski has sat. That's especially troubling for a QB on the wrong side of 40 who was only a borderline No. 1 Fantasy quarterback in 2018. He's a fine late-round option to play against good matchups, but don't draft him early based on his name.
The one guy who could benefit is Julian Edelman. He's the only sure thing in this receiving corps and has been a target hog when the team has been without Gronkowski. After his suspension in 2018, Edelman was a top-10 wide receiver in PPR scoring. We'd expect similar production this season if he can stay healthy.
The team also added Demaryius Thomas, N'Keal Harry and Benjamin Watson in the offseason. Thomas has some appeal if he can get and stay healthy. But he's 31 years old and coming off the second Achilles tear of his career. Expectations should be muted until we see him produce. I'll have almost no interest in Watson. Over the past 16 games Gronkowski has missed, the Patriots have mostly ignored the tight end position. Harry is the most interesting of the three, but it still seems likely he's behind Edelman and James White in targets.
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