The following article is a guest post by Frank DuPont, author of Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the NFL. You can also follow Frank on Twitter.
I'm a big believer in the idea that you should continue to update your beliefs as you obtain new information. For that reason, I think July is a great month for fantasy preparation that is backward looking, while August is the month that I spend most of my time looking forward. You can't really replace the opportunity that you have to go through draft guides in July, but you also have to keep in mind that when training camps start you have to update your thinking.
Training camps are an important time for fantasy seasons because a few key things happen during camp. The two biggest things that I watch for during camp are injuries and what the coaches tell us about their players. It sounds obvious to say that we should be paying attention to camp developments, but a lot of fantasy owners don't do a very good job of staying on top of what's happening. Every year we'll see things happen in August that present opportunity for the fantasy owners that make adjustments to their draft strategy (see Arian Foster in 2010).
With that in mind, I thought I would discuss three guys that I will be watching closely during camps this year. These are guys that I don't know for sure if I'll be targeting. I only know that they're interesting and I'm going to take all of the time that I can to fully form my opinions about them.
Stephen Hill – Current ADP: Undrafted
At the top of the list is Jets rookie WR Stephen Hill. At 6'4", 215 pounds, and with a 4.36 40 yard dash, Hill is the kind of player who you could see finishing up a fantasy Sunday with 3 catches for 150 yards and 3 touchdowns. That might be wishful thinking, but the real reason I'm interested to see how Hill handles training camp is because I think he might have more opportunity this year than his current ADP suggests. He's not even cracking the top 65 among WRs. Given that Hill is probably going to start for the Jets, I think that's crazy. But since success is usually equal to talent plus opportunity, let's start by looking at Hill's potential opportunity.
Consider that in 2010, Braylon Edwards was targeted 6.3 times per game for the Jets. His spot was filled in 2011 by Plaxico Burress, who was targeted 6 times per game.
Maybe it's also worth looking at some other rookie target numbers in order to calibrate our expectations for Hill. Torrey Smith was a 2nd round pick for Baltimore last year and he was targeted about 6.3 times per game. Greg Little was also a 2nd round pick and he was targeted 7.5 times per game.
I've thrown out some information on targets because that information is important for setting our expectation. If Hill were targeted as often as former Jets Plaxico Burress and Braylon Edwards, or targeted less than last year's 2nd round picks Torrey Smith and Greg Little, he might see 6 targets per game.
What could we expect then of Hill if he were targeted 6 times per game? It might help to look at some comparable players. First, Hill is roughly similar in size and speed to Kenny Britt. Britt averaged 9.4 yards per target in his rookie season while catching passes from Vince Young and Kerry Collins (neither of whom completed 60% of their throws). Hill is also similar in size and speed to Braylon Edwards, who averaged 8.9 yards per target when catching passes from Mark Sanchez in 2010. Hill shares with Edwards the knock of having bad hands, so Edwards' yards per target number is somewhat useful.
If we use 6 targets per game and then multiply that by a little better than 9 yards per target, we can get to a 900 yard season pace for Hill. That would be good for a wide receiver that isn't even cracking the top 65 among WRs right now.
I've looked at potential target and yards per target numbers in order to give you some sense as to the range of upside that we might expect from Hill if he has a good camp. But that's an important "if". We still have to pay attention to what Hill does in August. If we hear that he isn't picking up the offense, or is being outplayed by other receivers, then we have to lower our expectations. But if it looks like Hill is going to emerge from training camp as the Jets' 2nd starting receiver, then he represents a very good risk/reward opportunity. Because Hill is basically going undrafted right now, there is zero potential downside if you take him as your last bench WR. It's actually impossible to regret your pick if you take him that late. But I don't spend my time looking around for players whose upside might be 900 yards. There is some chance, and I'm not saying it's a large chance, but there is some chance that Hill's speed and size could allow him to turn in some very big games. He's exactly the kind of player I pay attention to in August.
Mark Ingram – Current ADP: RB38
One of my favorite things to do in fantasy football is jump on the formerly hot player that everyone has given up on. Remember how everyone gave up on Darren McFadden and C.J. Spiller and then it turned out that they were as talented as initially expected? I think Mark Ingram might also fit into this category.
It may be worth recalling that Ingram was the only back taken in the first round of the NFL draft last year. He isn't as fast as Spiller or McFadden, but he was talented enough to win a Heisman trophy. However, because of Ingram's lack of speed, I think most of his value comes from playing in the Saints offense, which generates a lot of carries for running backs inside the 5 yard line.
The following table shows the Saints' rank among NFL teams for carries inside the 5 since Drew Brees has been the quarterback. Note that they ranked in the top 7 in attempts every year until 2012.
|Season||Plays Inside 5||Runs Inside 5||Run %||NFL Rank (Runs Inside 5)||Rush TD||TD Rate|
When I look at that table I see a team that gets near the goal line a lot and likes to run when they do get close. Then, in 2010 a rash of running back injuries disrupted their efficiency inside the 5 and they posted their worst touchdown rate in that part of the field in five years. They followed that up by drafting a former Heisman Trophy winner (Ingram) known for his power and balance. Then Ingram got hurt and the Saints called fewer runs inside the 5 than they had in the past 6 years.
Some of my analysis above fits in the category of getting creative with data. But I do tend to look at team moves as a way of figuring out what the team is thinking. When the Saints moved up in the draft to take Ingram in 2011, I took that to mean that they wanted to improve their running game. Ingram got hurt and the Saints were led in rushing by the 181 pound Darren Sproles.
Ingram is coming off of a season where he was limited by injuries and he's also had a few offseason surgeries (although he now claims to be 100%). But those issues are fine right now because we're looking for opportunities where we can pay attention during camp and see if there is any new information that helps us decide on Ingram. Ideally Ingram will be healthy and will move into the role that Pierre Thomas occupied in 2008 and 2009. But the key thing is that even if Ingram has a very good camp and looks like he's in line for a good amount of opportunity, his ADP may stay unnaturally depressed because a lot of fantasy owners were burned by him last year. That's where the opportunity comes from and that's the reason we're going to be paying attention during camp.
Jared Cook – Current ADP: TE14
Jared Cook is currently being drafted 14th among tight ends, which is also about where he finished in total yards at the position. But a player like Cook is always worth paying attention to because he's such a physical specimen. Cook is about 250 pounds and runs the 40 yard dash in under 4.50 seconds.
While Cook finished 14th among TEs in yards last year, he actually finished behind only one other tight end in yards per target. Rob Gronkowski was the only tight end with 70 or more targets to finish with more yards per target than Cook.
The following table shows the leading tight ends in terms of yards per target (minimum 70 targets).
Another way to think about an efficient pass catcher is that they have probably earned more opportunity. It's also the case that the situation with the receivers in Tennessee might make Cook a more attractive option in that offense as well. Based on recent reports, Kenny Britt has had three knee surgeries over the past year and some are speculating that he might not be ready for the start of the season.
Cook fits into the group that we'll want to pay attention to during training camp because we want to see what the coaches say about his role in the offense. We also want to see what happens with the other Tennessee pass catchers, and whether the Titans only other big pass catcher is available for the start of the season.
If you draft Cook at his current ADP of TE14, you really can't get hurt. But we may get more information during the preseason that will give us an even better read on Cook. We know he's a physical beast and he was extremely efficient with targets last year. If you combine those two things with a potential increased role in the offense, you would have a formula for a breakout player. That's why we pay attention in August.