NOTES FROM PRE-SEASON: WEEK 3
1. Luck Retirement Has Profound Impact on Fantasy Landscape
Stunned doesn’t come close to describing the feeling most football fans felt on Saturday as news that Colts’ Quarterback Andrew Luck was calling time on his short-lived NFL career seeped out. Years of pain and injury took its toll on Luck and thus the league will lose one of it’s best and most enjoyable players.
The impact on the Colts is even more profound. Whilst it’s impossible to defend the behaviour of the fans who booed Luck as he left Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, any fan can surely appreciate the crushing disappointment of a team who on were Superbowl contenders on Friday and also-rans by Sunday morning.
Colts’ Head Coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard are bending over backwards to praise Luck’s replacement Jacoby Brissett and just last week I was suggesting that you pick him up.
Make no mistake, however, Brissett is a substantial downgrade.
From a fantasy perspective the loss of their superstar QB will have a negative effect on all the Colts skill position players. TY Hilton will see a significant drop off. The wide receiver has gone over 1000 yards in 5 of the last 6 seasons. The only one he didn’t was the season that Luck missed. If Hilton takes a hit, then Devin Funchess all but disappears off the radar.
As the offence is likely to see fewer red zone opportunities, Eric Ebron will likely see a dramatic loss in value. Jack Doyle on the other hand may well see an uptick. He saw 108 targets in the last season that Brissett started.
The running backs could go either way. It’s possible the team looks to run the ball more but where as Marlon Mack looked like a great compliment to a Luck led passing attack, he suddenly looks lightweight and poorly suited to a lead back role. He also faces the likelihood of being vultured at the goal line by a running Quarterback.
Brissett himself may not be the worst player to pick up from a fantasy perspective. In the 15 games he started in 2017 he threw for nearly 3100 yards, 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Reasonable numbers for what was effectively his rookie season. He also ran for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns. His rushing will be a nice supplement to his fantasy value. With Reich and improved offensive line there is reason to believe Brissett will be a serviceable fantasy option at worst.
For Dynasty I’d imagine most owners will sit on Luck for a while. If you see him dropped, then pick him up. All indications suggest he has endured a torrid time mentally over the past four years but perhaps a year away and some time to heal may change the 29-year old’s perspective. For now, though, Andrew Luck is a sad loss for the Colts and the NFL as a whole; we can only hope he finds the peace he seeks.
2. Duke Johnson is suddenly a valuable commodity
Lost amidst the Andrew Luck retirement were a slew of injuries that could impact the chances of a host of other teams. The Panthers will have to sweat over the health of Cam Newton until week 1 at least but it was Houston that saw the biggest hit to their starting roster.
Running back Lamar Miller took a gruesome looking hit during Saturday’s game with the Cowboys and suffered a season ending ACL injury. The already questionable depth in the Texans RB room is now stretched the limit.
The trade for Duke Johnson a couple of weeks back looked sensible, if overpriced, at the time. It now looks vital in retrospect. Johnson now figures to carry to bulk of the load as the Texans try to repeat as AFC South champions.
If opportunity makes Johnson a must own, then history and production provide a compelling counter argument. In his four years in the NFL he’s never topped 104 carries and has yet to break 400 yards. His receiving skills are unquestioned but to be a real fantasy asset he needs to double his career average carries from 75 and continue to be proficient in the passing game.
There is some evidence that Johnson can carry the load. In his final year at Miami he has 242 carries for 1652 yards. Nobody expects him to replicate that, but it shows he at least has the bandwidth to get the first go at leading the backfield.
The biggest fantasy beneficiary of the Johnson news however, is likely to be Deshaun Watson who suddenly figures to throw the ball even more than the 505 attempts he had last year. The big question will be whether the Texans porous o-line can keep Watson upright and healthy if they become one dimensional.
3. The Stars Are Aligning for Damian Williams
Scepticism around Kansas City Chiefs’ running back Damian Williams hasn’t been difficult to find. Analyst after analyst has lined up to tell anyone who’ll listen that the former undrafted free agent isn’t the plug and play answer to the conundrum of replacing Kareem Hunt.
After all the negativity since Andy Reid announced that Williams would be the starter during OTAs, the sixth-year back used Saturday’s preseason game with the 49ers to remind everyone why he’s the RB1. He did little in the running game but 3 catches for 74 yards, headlined by a 62-yard catch and run touchdown showed just how dangerous he can be.
On top of a stellar pre-season performance all indications are that the team has soured on free agent acquisition Carlos Hyde leaving rookie Darwin Thompson as the only competition for snaps. Thompson has flashed and looked more pro-ready than expected but he’ll likely be a role player in his first year.
Everything now suggest Williams will be the lead back. The lead back in Andy Reid’s offence is fantasy gold more often than not. Ergo, buy Damien Williams.
4. The 49ers Skill Players Remain A Mystery
The last week can’t have been an easy one for fans of the San Francisco 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo’s horrendous preseason performance against the Broncos last week stirred serious panic in the Bay Area.
Fortunately, this week Jimmy G fared much better. He went 14 of 20 for 188 yards in a strong first half showing that was topped off by a beautiful throw to running back Matt Breida for a touchdown. Despite the protests in the past week from John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan that it’s only preseason, you can bet that there was a lot of people breathing easier in Santa Clara this week.
If Garoppolo silenced his critics for a while, the game did little to clarify the murky picture surrounding the Niners skill players. Any attempt to figure out depth chart at receiver was futile before the game and only got worse during it. Richie James finished as the teams leading pass catcher with four catches for 66 yards. Dante Pettis gave his best showing of the preseason catch 3 of 5 targets for 36 yards. Deebo Samuel, Matt Breida, Kendrick Bourne and Jordan Matthews all caught two passes each for about 25 yards. How this is going to sort itself out in the next couple of weeks will be fascinating.
Pettis’ role was further complicated by his Head Coach leaving him in the game until the 4th quarter and then calling out his consistency. It still feels like the team will lean on the former Washington wideout early in season, so we’ll know sooner than later if he’s going to live up to the hype.
At running back Tevin Coleman looks like he’s the lead guy but it’s impossible not to impressed by Breida, who runs hard, catches the ball well and continues to produce every time he’s called on. There’s no way he won’t feature significantly during the season, a fact that you need to consider when picking up Coleman.
5. The Steelers Look Ready for the New Season
Having said goodbye to Antonio Brown and Leveon Bell this offseason there have been understandable questions over the prognosis for the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the evidence of Sunday nights win in Tennessee they are well placed to cope with the losses.
After a couple of miss-firing drives Big Ben lead a 58 yards march that culminated in a 17-yard touchdown throw to Juju Smith Schuster. Juju continues to suggest that he’s ready to make the leap from sidekick slot receiver to leading man in one of the leagues most potent offences.
With Ben looking sharp and a receiving group of varied weapons ready to go, a lot will depend on running back James Connor who is coming off a near 1500 all-purpose yard season. On Sunday, he carried the ball 5 times for 41 yards and caught 2 passes for 15. More than enough action to suggest he’ll repeat last season’s breakout performance. Jaylon Samuels showed enough in relief of Connor to confirm that he is all but certainly the back-up and, for now, looks well ahead of draft pick Bennie Snell Jr.
6. Starting Keenum Changes Little for Redskins
In the conclusion to what may have been the least talked about Quarterback competition in history, the Washington Redskins announced that veteran Case Keenum will start week 1 in Philadelphia.
Despite trading for Keenum all the noises from Washington have suggested that he was the candidate the team wanted to win the competition least. Head Coach Jay Gruden seemed to suggest the preferred Colt McCoy who is entering his fifth season with the team and the front office were likely hopeful that first round draft pick Dwayne Haskins would show enough pro-readiness to start day 1.
Against that backdrop Keenum has performed admirably in the preseason and concluded tied up the job by completing 9 of 14 passes for 101 yards. With a daunting opening sequence against Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago there would seem to be a better than average chance that Haskins will be the starter by the time the team face the New York Giants in week 4.
Keenum’s success means little for the fantasy outlook of the Redskins offence. I’d expect Adrian Peterson and Darius Guice to see a lot of work early in the season. None of the receiving corps offers much to get excited about, and Jordan Reed’s injury suggests that the team’s strategy of early last season – run the ball, don’t turn it over and play good defence will be the same going into 2019.
7. For all the noise, LeSean McCoy is the starter in Buffalo
For much of the last year, fantasy analysts have been itching to write the obituary of Bills running back LeSean McCoy. For now, at least, reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. During Sunday’s dress rehearsal in Detroit McCoy showed notable burst as he ran the ball 6 times for 37 yards.
The team have a loaded backfield and it’s still not 100% certain that they won’t look to trade the 31-year-old but if he’s on the roster in week one I’d expect to see him get most of the work. With 35-year-old Frank Gore seemingly locked in as McCoy’s primary back up age is clearly not a concern.
In Dynasty it’s fair to point to McCoy’s expiring contract and suggest that whether and where he’ll play next season are very much open discussions but for now, like the Bills, saddle him up and use him while you can.
8. Leonard Fournette may be criminally under rated.
It’s tough to remember, but there was a time when Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette was touted amongst the very best running back prospects to ever come out of college. During his two years in the league that reputation has gradually been eroded and his ADP has dropped to around 22 overall and 12 amongst running backs.
The arrival of Nick Foles may open things up for Fournette as suddenly the team are less one dimensional. Having a competent passer should open some holes for Fournette and his preseason debut performance suggests he’s likely to be heavily featured. 4 rushes for 27 yards and 2 catches for 19 suggests that he’ll be a significant part of the offence.
He also passed the eye tests, running hard, initiating contact and fighting for yards in a way that wasn’t present last season.
If the Jags offence shows improvement and offers a more varied attack than the Blake Bortles led version of Fournette’s career to date, the opportunity and workload gives Fournette a chance to be a league winner if things go to plan.