Fantasy Football: Five big NFC questions highlighted by projections include Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley
Ben Gretch reviews some big questions he came across in the NFC after doing his projections, including thoughts on Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and more.
Doing team-level projections always helps provide context on where opportunities exist and where things are squeezed thin. But ultimately, a projection is just one potential outcome for a team and its players.
To get to that outcome, decisions must be made. Scenarios arise where things could go a few different ways, depending on whether an upside player breaks out, a team's season goes pass- or run-heavy, or a key injury tests an offense that lacks depth.
Sometimes the value of doing the projection is just in asking these questions, especially ones that shed light on potentially major ramifications for how the season might play out for a team and its key Fantasy pieces.
Let's take a look at five questions I struggled with, focusing on the NFC:
1. How much of Ezekiel Elliott's receiving increase from 2018 will he carry over into 2019?
A major recent trend atop Fantasy RB leaderboards, especially in PPR leagues, has been exceptionally high reception totals. In 2018, Christian McCaffrey set a new single-season receptions record for a running back with 107, while Saquon Barkley wasn't far behind at 91 and Alvin Kamara posted his second consecutive 81-catch season to start his career.
For Elliott, 77 catches represented a significant increase over the 58 balls he caught across his first two seasons combined. We know the Cowboys' back can run -- he's remarkably led the NFL in rushing yards per game in all three of his seasons -- but that receiving boost is why he posted his best Fantasy season to date, more than making up for nearly 200 fewer rushing yards and seven fewer total touchdowns compared to his big rookie year in 2016.
But will he keep up that increase? After adding Amari Cooper midseason last year, the Cowboys bolstered their receiving corps this offseason, adding Randall Cobb and welcoming back Jason Witten from retirement. They also drafted running back Tony Pollard in the fourth round.
Pollard isn't a threat to Elliott, but he was something of an odd pick, coming off the board just after Bryce Love, Justice Hill, and Benny Snell. In college, Pollard totaled 104 receptions against just 139 rush attempts, a profile that immediately reminds of the type of work former Cowboy third-down back Lance Dunbar once received in this offense.
If Dallas has any intention of spelling Elliott a bit more this year, the Pollard pick suggests they might plan to do that on passing downs. I wound up projecting Elliott for 60 catches in 2019, and while I have him seeing a touchdown boost from last year, that receiving dip left him a tier below McCaffrey, Barkley and Kamara in PPR leagues.
2. How do the targets split out in Green Bay behind Davante Adams?
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But what if it isn't that simple? Historically, Aaron Rodgers has been on the passing end of a number of pass-catcher breakouts, and they've often come from guys presumed to be the No. 3 (or lower) option.
Jordy Nelson's breakout 15-touchdown 2011 season came on just 96 targets as he usurped an aging Donald Driver behind No. 1 Greg Jennings. The very next year, with all three of those receivers still on the roster, Randall Cobb and James Jones emerged as the most productive Packers wide receivers. More recently, Davante Adams' third-year breakout completely changed the course of his career after two disastrous years to start his career. He was a 2016 Fantasy Draft afterthought and is now, of course, a top-10 receiver, following a similar arc to Nelson.
There have been some less notable but similar performances to these. Jarrett Boykin posted 681 yards in a 12-game stretch of playing time in 2013. When Nelson suffered a preseason ACL injury in 2015, Jones re-signed with Green Bay just before the season after failing to make the Giants' roster, and proceeded to lead the team in receiving yards and tie for the lead in receiving touchdowns (with Richard Rodgers, and his out-of-nowhere eight touchdowns that season is yet another example).
It's frankly harder to locate seasons in Rodgers' career that follow a projectable volume script for his pass-catchers. So take note -- if Rodgers does get back to a high level of play under Matt LaFleur, the receiving production could come from anywhere, including full-fledged breakouts from unproven young guys.
That still makes Allison worth targeting, of course, but it also suggests Marquez Valdes-Scantling is worth considering late as the presumed No. 3, and Jimmy Graham's depressed ADP might also be worth chasing in the hopes he has a spike touchdown season. Unless Rodgers and the Packers really struggle in 2019, someone here will be a huge value, and it's a good idea to have some exposure to a few different names.
3. How much of Mark Ingram's role will Latavius Murray fill?
As a team positional unit, Saints running backs scored 27 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, plus 24 in 2016. Over those three seasons, the most posted by any other team was 25, fewer than the Saints' average. There's just no offense in football with quite this combination of consistently high scoring rates and consistently high red-zone usage for its backfield.
That means Latavius Murray doesn't necessarily need to take work from Alvin Kamara to be a productive back in his own right. His 34 rushing touchdowns on 899 career carries give him a rushing touchdown rate much higher than league average, something that should translate well in his new digs. Unless Kamara matches or improves upon his 18 touchdowns from 2018 and someone like Taysom Hill steals a few, it's easy to see Murray gobbling up eight or so touchdowns.
The big question about his upside is whether they will throw to him a decent amount. The Saints have been top five in running back targets for 13 straight seasons, every year since Drew Brees came over from the Chargers. Kamara will dominate in this area, plus the team added Javorius Allen later this offseason. But there's still an outside shot Murray could approach 50 targets, a number Ingram hit three straight years before his targets dwindled in 2018.
4. Can Calvin Ridley separate from Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper?
I struggled with Calvin Ridley's projection. He had a great rookie season, and seems to be a clear plus wide receiver going forward. But he's still a No. 2 wide receiver on a team with an alpha No. 1 that also incorporates their third and fourth downfield options to a high degree.
Thus, my concern is about more than his 10.9% touchdown rate or 8.9 yards per target regressing, though one or both likely will. The real concern is targets. In 2018, Mohamed Sanu accounted for 94 targets, Ridley 92 and Austin Hooper 88 in a season where the Falcons threw more than they'd like thanks to defensive injuries that put them in a lot of passing situations. After running at an above average rate (as a percentage of total plays) in both 2016 and 2017, they had the league's third lowest rushing rate in 2018.
An argument for Ridley is it may be unlikely all three of Julio Jones, Sanu, and Hooper play 16 games again as they did in 2018. But if they do, Ridley has to not just pull away from Sanu and Hooper volume-wise, but essentially render those guys afterthoughts given the expected decline in team volume.
I do think Ridley will be the clear No. 2 option, but wound up with him at just 96 targets, with Sanu and Hooper seeing decreases to 79 each, and Jones dropping from 170 targets to 160. If Ridley is indeed in that volume range again, where he finished WR20 in PPR in 2018 even with elite efficiency, he's probably too rich in drafts.
5. How much will Todd Gurley play?
Similar to the Saints, the Rams' backfield has been a gold mine for Fantasy production since Sean McVay took over. Todd Gurley led the NFL in touchdowns each of the past two years, including a 2018 season where he finished three scores clear of any other player despite knee issues costing him two games and limiting him to 13 or fewer carries in four of the final six he did play.
The offensive system maximizes rush attempts against light fronts and gets the backs in space, something that has helped Gurley's efficiency over the past two seasons, and also helped C.J. Anderson during his late-season surge in 2018. As a result, the Rams have been top five in team RB PPR scoring each of the past two years. There will be running back production here.
Of course, the question of how much Gurley will account for will dominate offseason discussions. Gurley's ADP is in free fall while rookie Darrell Henderson's is skyrocketing. Because of the team situation, I may wind up bullish on both.
Gurley likely does not have top-five potential unless he's way healthier than has been indicated, but he should still be a very productive back even if he only sees the plus side of a committee. My assumptions would be he'll start the season a lot healthier than what we saw in the playoffs last year, the team will manage his knee issues better than last year knowing what it now knows and that he should have the nod on goal line touches over the rookie Henderson.
But it's looking more and more clear Gurley won't be a workhorse in 2019, or perhaps ever again. Henderson might still wind up a reasonable value even at his elevated price tag, especially if he picks up a solid chunk of receiving work. Both backs can be productive Fantasy assets at the same time, and Henderson's upside should Gurley miss time is apparent.
Even if Gurley stays reasonably healthy, the Rams would be wise to consider a couple maintenance weeks off throughout the season, meaning Henderson could nab a couple starts even in that scenario. This is obviously a developing situation worth monitoring throughout training camp, and the RB production available in this offense will make it will be a huge storyline right up until Week 1.
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