This is the time of year for optimism, but I'm going to have to be negative today. Because it's time for my pre-training camp bust picks.
Because not everyone is going to work out. In fact, you should probably expect a good chunk of your draft picks to miss. Hopefully, that isn't true of the early rounds, but all you have to do is look at last year to see Michael Thomas, Miles Sanders, and Josh Jacobs were first-round disappointments and Kenyan Drake, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Todd Gurley, James Conner, and Leonard Fournette were early-round disappointments even without taking into account injuries.
Not all of those players were busts in the way we often think of them. Jacobs was still a useful Fantasy option, and so was Sanders. They weren't worth the price you paid for them and they didn't help you much on your path to a championship, but they also didn't drag you down, either. My definition of busts -- and the list you'll read later in today's newsletter -- encompasses both definitions; the players who might give you nothing, but also the players who might be fine, but will still hold you back on the path to a championship.
Before we get to that, though, it's worth talking about the NFL's newest rules regarding COVID-19 and how that might impact the Fantasy season. Plus, you should check out my breakout picks from yesterday's newsletter if you missed them, plus my list of not-quite breakouts, which includes D.J. Moore, T.J. Hockenson, and seven more I can't quite fully buy in on. Plus, we answered some of your toughest questions about the upcoming season on the Fantasy Football Today podcast Friday, so make sure you download that and see what Dave Richard, Adam Aizer, and I had to say.
The NFL clarified what the COVID-19 rules will be for the 2021 season Thursday, and if you remember how last season went, it's definitely worth getting familiar. There were several instances last season where teams were either left short-handed or had their games rescheduled due to COVID outbreaks, and that will be a concern yet again in 2021.
Except this time, the NFL may not be quite as accommodating as they were when they rescheduled games. The league has ruled out the possibility of adding any additional weeks to the scheduled 18, and if a team suffers an outbreak among unvaccinated players and the game cannot be rescheduled, that team will forfeit the game and be given a loss. That team will also be subject to additional punishment from the league, including possibly any financial losses from a canceled game.
That's a huge deal, and a huge incentive for teams to get as many players vaccinated as possible. Players will also have different rules regarding their availability if they are vaccinated; vaccinated players will be able to return to the team following a positive test if they are asymptomatic and return two negative tests. Unvaccinated players will have to be isolated for a minimum of 10 days after a positive test, and also will have other limitations, both within the team facilities and outside that could result in penalties if the protocols are not followed.
These are potentially very harsh penalties, and there has been some pushback to their announcement from players -- DeAndre Hopkins tweeted (and then shortly thereafter, deleted), "Never thought I would say this, but being put in a position to hurt my team because I don't want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the NFL."
You'll have to figure out whether you want to have rules in place to accommodate for potential last-minute absences due to positive tests, as many leagues did last year. You'll also personally need to consider how to approach players on teams with low vaccination rates. Those teams may be at higher risk of cancellation or postponement, and teams that have fewer than 85% of their players vaccinated will have restrictions on their team facilities in season, too.
You may not want to have to take these things into account when picking your Fantasy team, but that's the reality of the situation right now. And, with the NFL adopting pretty strict guidelines, it's clear the league wants to incentivize players to get vaccinated to avoid these kinds of issues. Hopefully it isn't an issue, but hope isn't a plan.
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These are, of course, my bust picks. If you disagree, tell me why at Chris.Towers@CBSInteractive.com. And, if you want more, Heath Cummings wrote about why he's down on Josh Allen, Saquon Barkley, and more here, while Jamey Eisenberg broke down his concerns about David Montgomery, Aaron Rodgers, and others here.
The could-be "disappointments"
- Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints -- No matter who the starting quarterback is for the Saints, there's going to be a significant change in how the offense functions. Change isn't always bad, but uncertainty isn't exactly welcome when we're talking about the outlook of one of the best and most expensive players in Fantasy football. Kamara is a phenomenal talent, but he depends on outlier touchdown efficiency and passing game work to be one of the elite Fantasy options at the running back position, and you just can't necessarily pencil him in for that right now. I think it's more likely to be the case with Jameis Winston at QB, because that offense should at least function somewhat similarly to how it did under Drew Brees -- probably more turnovers, but also more explosive players -- but it's a lot harder to buy in if it's Taysom Hill. Kamara was targeted just 16 times in Hill's four starts in 2020, compared to 25 between the two games before and two games after that stretch. Hill's rushing ability opens up a bunch of interesting possibilities for the Saints offense as a whole, but he would likely harm Kamara's chances of reaching his ultimate ceiling. Kamara could probably still be a top-10 back with 80 targets (he's never had fewer than 97, and that came in a 14-game season), but the No. 1 overall upside would probably be gone. And 80 might not be the floor.
- J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ravens -- What are you looking for when you are drafting running backs? What should you be looking for? Given how volatile the position is -- how dependent on factors beyond a player's own skill level and how often they get injured -- my view is generally that you should be looking for upside above all. Not every player has to project as a potential league-winner, but if you're taking a running back in the second-round range, there should be a reasonable path to stardom. I'm not sure it's there for Dobbins. He's a terrific talent working in an offense that creates a ton of efficiency in the running game. But it's also an offense that doesn't actually give all that many touches to their running backs, despite their huge rushing totals. In 2020, Ravens running backs ranked 12th in the NFL in rush attempts, and they ranked just 24th if you include targets. Dobbins is going to be the lead back, and he should score plenty of touchdowns, but he's one part of a three-headed rushing attack who isn't likely to be targeted more than a few times per game. Some will point to the final six games of the 2020 season as proof of Dobbins' upside, but I think it's proof of his limitations just as much. In those final six games, he scored seven touchdowns and rushed for 6.43 yards per carry, good for 16.95 PPR points per game. That would have been good for 10th in PPR scoring for the full season, which is excellent, but it came with an unsustainable touchdown and yards-per-carry rate. Dobbins' best-case scenario probably sees him break into the top 10 this season, but there might be 15 running backs out there whose best-case scenario is even better. If you're drafting Dobbins, it should be because he has a high floor, but is that the right reason to draft a running back in the second round?
- T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions -- I wrote about why I want to call Hockenson a breakout candidate but can't quite bring myself to buy in Thursday, and here's the natural end result of that. Hockenson's role is hard to overlook when he might be the No. 1 option in the Lions passing game, but it should go without saying that isn't enough to make him a Fantasy difference maker. Evan Engram led the Giants in targets in 2020, but because it wasn't a great passing game and he wasn't effective with the targets he was getting, it didn't matter all that much. Now, you might say, "Hockenson is better than Engram," but … are you sure? Engram was, of course, a first-round pick who had one of the best rookie seasons for a tight end ever, and he averaged 7.1 yards and 1.65 Fantasy points per target heading into 2020; Hockenson has averaged 6.8 yards and 1.6 Fantasy points per target in his NFL career. Which is to say, Engram had been better entering last season than Hockenson has been so far, and now Hockenson is getting a downgrade at quarterback. Hockenson is being drafted as a top-five tight end, and he could certainly finish as a top-five tight end, but that isn't enough. You're paying a premium for Hockenson, so it's not enough that he outscores a No. 2 tight end by two or three points per game; you need to get a real edge. I'm not sure he's that guy, even with the projected workload.
- Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers -- I've written a ton about Evans and the Buccaneers passing game this offseason, and he's another player who stands a pretty good chance of finishing right around where he is drafted among his positional peers, and there's nothing wrong with that. Evans is dominant in the red zone and plays with one of the best quarterbacks of all time, so it's hard to see how his season goes too wrong. The problem is, playing with Chris Godwin (who could easily be on this list instead) and Antonio Brown means he's got a ton of competition for targets, which puts a ceiling on what he might produce. He's got fringe No. 1 WR upside, and you probably won't ever regret having him on your team. But I think the most likely outcome is something like a mid- to low-end WR2 season, which probably won't do much to elevate your team.
The bottom could fall out
- Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings -- I was wary of Thielen last season, but he ended up WR11 in per-game scoring, so I'll take the L on that one. But my concerns are only stronger this season. He's going to be 31 before Week 1 and he's been in clear decline over the past two seasons -- his 16-game pace since the start of the 2019 season is 67 catches on 100 targets for 860 yards, and he's been clearly the second-best WR on his team each season. Of course, he's also caught 20 touchdowns in 20 games during that span, so he's remained a viable Fantasy option. What happens if the touchdowns aren't quite as plentiful? He scored on 12.9% of his targets in 2020; if he had scored at his career rate of 6.8%, he would have finished with seven touchdowns and been WR28 in per-game scoring. Add in another year of regressing skills, and Thielen could be a fringe option in 2021.
- Mike Davis, RB, Falcons -- Davis represents one of the least valuable type of players in Fantasy: The default starting RB who nobody really thinks is all that good. You could also point to the likes of Melvin Gordon, Myles Gaskin, and a few others, but I think Davis is the best example of that this season. He's being drafted as one of the 25 (or so) first running backs in most drafts, mostly because he's projected to see a heavy workload for the Falcons. He's not viewed as a particularly special player, and this hasn't exactly been a great offense for running backs over the last few years. But he looks like a starting-caliber Fantasy option right now because he's projected for so much of the touches in this backfield. If he gets that work, he should end up being a starting Fantasy running back, but there is essentially no margin for error here. If he suffers one minor injury, that could cost him his job if someone else shines. If he just doesn't look good for a game or two, he could start to lose significant playing time. It's not that Davis can't be worth what you're likely to pay for him, it's that there are many ways for his season to go wrong and very few paths for him to be worth the price.
- D.J. Chark, WR, Jaguars -- Chark very well may be the lead receiver of a rejuvenated Jaguars passing game, but I'm not really convinced. He struggled to be Fantasy relevant last season on a team that threw 589 passes, and now he's got to contend with the further development of Laviska Shenault as well as the addition of Marvin Jones in an offense that will probably throw the ball less than it did a year ago. Chark has more than 60 receiving yards in just 10 of 28 games over the past two seasons, and three of those came in the first five of 2019. I think the most likely outcome is there's no legitimate No. 1 receiver on the Jaguars this season, and I'd rather have either Shenault (WR41 in ADP) or Jones (WR52). The fact that Urban Meyer publicly criticized Chark's play from 2020, saying, "He's a big guy that played little last year," doesn't make me feel much better, either.
- Kenny Golladay, WR, Giants -- The hope, from the Giants' perspective certainly, is that Golladay can have a similar impact on Daniel Jones as Stefon Diggs did for Josh Allen. And maybe he will. But Golladay isn't the same kind of do-it-all alpha WR Diggs is. Sure, Diggs was also primarily a deep threat in his final season in Minnesota, but he had also been a short- and intermediate-area possession type receiver prior to that, whereas Golladay is more of a classic over-the-top guy who makes the most out of relatively small numbers of targets. Jones actually rated out as a pretty good deep thrower in 2020, so this could be a pretty good marriage, but he wasn't nearly as good in 2019 on a larger sample size, so the jury is still very much out on that facet of Jones' game, as with nearly everything else. The Giants were a pretty low-volume passing offense last season, and wide receivers who switch teams tend to be overvalued in Fantasy, per research from PFF, so I could foresee an outcome where Golladay struggles to get 100 targets in a bad passing game and ends up a fringe, boom-or-bust starter.
- Robert Tonyan, TE, Packers -- Even if Aaron Rodgers does end up reporting to the Packers and remains their starting quarterback, it's hard to get excited about a guy who ranked 13th in receptions and yards last season. To be Fantasy relevant, Tonyan will need to score a decent amount of touchdowns, but even an outlier touchdown rate like 10% would have seen him finish 12th in scoring last season. Tonyan is going to be a touchdown-dependent streamer at tight end in the best-case scenario, and he might not even have Rodgers to catch passes from. If Jordan Love is the quarterback for the Packers, Tonyan wouldn't even be worth drafting.
So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.