Jesse Pantuosco

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The Post-Smashmouth Era

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Were you expecting me to begin this article with an elaborate intro or a mildly amusing anecdote like I usually do? Well better luck next time. We have a lot of ground to cover in this week’s Mailbag—not to mention that I’m running on fumes after posting my MLB Power Rankings a mere 24 hours ago—so let’s skip the pleasantries and get right to your questions.  

 

What can we expect from Marcus Mariota, Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker this year?

 

So essentially, you’re asking how will the Titans’ passing game fare this year? It’s a reasonable question, especially after Tennessee underperformed in that area last year. Though individual players (Mariota chief among them) certainly deserve some of the blame for last season’s disappointment, the Titans were also hamstrung by vanilla play-calling that never took full advantage of Mariota’s skill set. Mike Mularkey is gone and so is his ill-conceived Exotic Smashmouth philosophy. In his place, the Titans hired Mike Vrabel, a former linebacker whose last gig came as the Texans’ defensive coordinator. Needless to say, shoring up the Titans’ defense will be his top priority.

 

The good news, at least for Mariota, is that Matt LaFleur was tapped as the Titans’ new offensive coordinator. LaFleur held the same job title in Los Angeles a year ago, leading the Rams to a league-leading 478 points. The Rams also finished in the top 10 in both rushing and receiving yards under LaFleur. Wunderkind coach Sean McVay certainly played a role in the Rams’ resurgence, as did Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley. But the 38-year-old LaFleur has clearly established himself as one of the better offensive minds in football. Last year Tennessee’s outdated offense, helmed by Mularkey (age 56) and OC Terry Robiskie (63), moved at a snail’s pace. By contrast, LaFleur oversaw the league’s fastest offense in Los Angeles. That might take some getting used to, but ultimately, Mariota should benefit from playing at a faster pace.

 

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The coaching change will undoubtedly help but it’s still up to Mariota to take the next step. We know he has it in him—Mariota threw for 26 touchdowns and finished ninth in yards per attempt (7.6) during his breakout 2016 campaign. The former Heisman Trophy winner imploded like the Hindenburg last year, though a bum hamstring could be to blame for his career-high 15 interceptions.

 

Mariota’s supporting cast, at least on paper, is fairly strong. Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry give the running game a good yin and yang element while the passing attack boasts up-and-comer Corey Davis, a criminally underrated Rishard Matthews and the ageless Delanie Walker.

 

Though health will always be a question mark with Mariota, I think we can expect better from him in 2018. I consider last year’s mistake-riddled season an outlier for Mariota, who has largely been a strong decision-maker since arriving as the second overall pick in 2015. Coaches and beat reporters have raved about his speed this offseason, suggesting that the Oregon alum could improve on the 312 rushing yards he delivered last season. More rushing attempts will put Mariota at greater risk of injury, though I imagine that’s a risk most fantasy owners would be willing to take. I’m not as high on Mariota as some including colleague Evan Silva, who had him as the QB9 in his latest best-ball rankings. But the 24-year-old’s bounce-back potential definitely makes him an interesting late-round stash.  

 

As for his receiving corps, Walker is the one who intrigues me most from a fantasy perspective. Care to guess how many tight ends have reached 800 yards in four straight seasons? Just two—Walker and Zach Ertz. That speaks not only to Walker’s consistent volume (100-plus targets in four of five seasons with Tennessee), but also his availability—the last time he played fewer than 15 games was all the way back in 2010. He’s not on the Gronk/Kelce spectrum, but if you wait until the sixth or seventh round to address tight end as I often do, Walker isn’t a bad consolation prize.

 

The case for Walker is pretty cut and dry whereas Matthews has always been a bit harder to gauge. I enjoy using Matthews because he’s usually dirt cheap on DFS sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, but his lack of consistent volume has made him difficult to trust in season-long leagues. Even with Corey Davis hurt and Eric Decker ineffective last year, Matthews was unable to take advantage, topping 100 yards on just one occasion. He could win you a week or two in best-ball leagues but looking at him through a season-long lens, the 28-year-old is little more than a late-round lottery ticket.

 

Davis offers first-round pedigree but let’s not confuse potential with actual results. The 23-year-old was never quite on the same page as Mariota last year, reeling in just 52.3 percent of his targets as a rookie. It would be far easier to overlook Davis’ mediocre receiving totals (he topped 50 yards in just two of 11 regular season games) if he were scoring on a regular basis but instead he finished 2017 with zero touchdowns (though he did find pay-dirt twice in a playoff loss to New England).

 

You can blame that on a variety of factors—a nagging hamstring injury, Mariota’s own injury struggles, competition from the likes of Matthews, Decker and Walker, playing the Jaguars twice. But that goose egg in the touchdown column is still a red flag for me. I imagine Davis will take a step forward this year—it would be hard not to after last year’s gutter ball of a season—and LaFleur’s presence will undoubtedly help in his development. But I still consider him more of a depth option/bye-week fill-in than a true cornerstone in season-long leagues.

 

I wasn’t expecting to write a novella about this, but I guess your Titans question piqued my interest. Well done.

 

Which two would you prefer as keepers—Jimmy Garoppolo, Andrew Luck or Pat Mahomes?

 

I try not to answer too many keeper questions because they rarely age well. Predicting the upcoming season is hard enough—trying to forecast years in advance is nearly impossible. Garoppolo and Mahomes are both relatively unproven—Garoppolo has seven starts on his resume compared to just one for Mahomes. Obviously, there’s only so much you can glean from Garoppolo’s brief tenure as the Niners’ starter, but even in that small sample size, there’s been plenty to suggest the 26-year-old has a bright future ahead of him. Even with mediocre receiving weapons, Jimmy G was highly productive last year and conventional wisdom suggests the ex-Patriot only stands to improve as his comfort level grows in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. San Francisco’s $137.5 million investment in Garoppolo is further proof that the team views him, not just as its starting quarterback, but as a budding superstar and franchise centerpiece.

 

Garoppolo, who spent years learning from the best in the biz, Tom Brady, is much more of a finished product than Mahomes, who logged all of 62 snaps as a rookie. All of those snaps came in Week 17, when he went into Mile High and cut up the Broncos for 284 passing yards in a three-point victory. That’s an impressive stat line, especially when you consider Kansas City was playing without Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, who were both resting for the postseason (a lot of good that did). The Chiefs traded up to land Mahomes 10th overall in last year’s draft, then cleared the way for him to start by trading veteran Alex Smith (the cannon-armed Mahomes profiles as Smith’s polar opposite) to the Redskins this offseason. The Chiefs even gifted him a top wideout, outbidding a number of teams for Sammy Watkins in free agency. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket—the Chiefs seem to be all-in on Mahomes and, judging by his soaring ADP, fantasy owners have been quick to follow suit.

 

It seems ridiculous to shortchange a player of Luck’s elite caliber, but in this scenario, he’d probably be my odd man out. Unlike Garoppolo and Mahomes, who look poised for stardom but haven’t quite gotten their yet, Luck is already well-established as one of the league’s top signal-callers. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder but in fantasy, the longer you’re out, the more questions it raises. Luck is still in the throes of a preposterously long recovery from shoulder surgery and just recently advanced to throwing a football (spoiler: it wasn’t even regulation size).

 

After so much time off, it’s fair to wonder if the 28-year-old will ever recapture his past glory. There isn’t much surrounding him in Indianapolis, though downfield threat T.Y. Hilton is only two years removed from leading the NFL in receiving yards. Keeper and dynasty formats carry more risk because you’re making a long-term commitment instead of discarding players each year and starting fresh like you would in a redraft league. Garoppolo and Mahomes lack experience, but given Luck’s chronic shoulder woes, I think they make for better keepers.

 

Are Emmanuel Sanders and Dak Prescott worth drafting earlier than their ADPs?

 

Sanders had been the model of consistency until last year when he fell short of what would have been his fourth straight 1,000-yard receiving season. The 31-year-old suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 10 (he rolled up a season-high 137 yards before getting hurt) and was never the same, averaging a sluggish 24.4 yards with no touchdowns over his final five games.

 

Whether Sanders’ disastrous season was a product of his ankle injury, the Broncos’ dire quarterback situation, or some combination of the two, we’ll never know. The good news is that Denver upgraded at quarterback by signing Case Keenum while Sanders was a full participant at OTAs this offseason. The Broncos finally drafted a wide receiver, SMU’s Courtland Sutton, which could be a hit to Sanders’ volume, though probably not enough to concern fantasy owners. Sanders is being drafted pretty conservatively right now—he carries an ADP of 90 on FantasyPros (WR36) and 87.5 on FantasyFootballCalculator (WR35). I’m not particularly enthused about an aging receiver coming off a bad year (I ranked him as my WR33), but I think it’s probably fine to grab him around the seventh/eighth-round turn, which is pretty close to his ADP.

 

Dak claimed Rookie of the Year honors while unseating Tony Romo in 2016, but struggled a year later as the infamous sophomore slump claimed yet another victim. Prescott’s down year had a lot to do with Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension and injuries to the offensive line, especially left tackle Tyron Smith. The 24-year-old should benefit from Zeke’s return, though the Cowboys enter 2018 with a hugely diminished pass-catching corps following the release of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten’s sudden retirement.

 

Third-round rookie Michael Gallup was a nice find and Allen Hurns is only a few years removed from a ten-touchdown campaign with Jacksonville, so the cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver. Even if Hurns and Gallup exceed expectations this year, Prescott’s supporting cast in Dallas will remain a tough sell for fantasy owners. I think he’ll be a game-manager this season, mostly handing off to Elliott and only throwing when necessary. Prescott went undrafted in our magazine mock (in stores soon!), which I think is pretty telling. Even at his eminently reasonable ADP (139.8 on FantasyPros), I’m not sure Dak is worth the trouble. Treat him as a QB2, if you must.

 

With all the early-round love running backs are getting this year, is it time to reconsider zero running back in fantasy leagues? Time to zig while others zag?

 

I understand why zero running back exists. We’ve all been burned by an injured running back, probably more than once. Imagine being a David Johnson or Dalvin Cook owner last year. Those losses were devastating. Compared to other positions, running backs take an insane amount of punishment and seem to have shorter careers for that very reason. Frustrated by having their early-round picks spoiled year after year, a certain segment of the fantasy population split off and said to hell with all these running backs. And from that mini-rebellion, a new draft strategy was born.

 

The advent of PPR brought zero running back into the mainstream as halfback truthers began to target pass-catchers like Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick in lieu of more traditional ball-carriers. The zero-running-back movement launched around the same time that specialized backs were becoming more prevalent in the NFL. With teams employing goal-line and pass-catching backs with greater frequency, the fantasy landscape thinned out, leaving us with only a handful of actual workhorses.

 

But even at its height a few years ago, I always felt that the zero-running-back movement was an overreaction. The myth that running backs are more injury-prone and thus less valuable can be debunked pretty easily. Odell Beckham, a first-round pick, if not top-five, in virtually all fantasy formats last year, wound up missing most of the season with a broken ankle. Another mainstay, Allen Robinson, tore his ACL three snaps into his first game. Keenan Allen stayed healthy in 2017 but missed all but one game the previous year. Meanwhile Cameron Meredith and Julian Edelman couldn’t even survive the preseason.

 

Fading an entire position because a few of them will get hurt is ludicrous—running backs aren’t any more injury-prone than wideouts or even quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz all missed significant chunks of last season while it’s been nearly 18 months since Andrew Luck last attempted an NFL pass. And even if running backs are as fragile as the general public would have you believe, isn’t that more reason to load up on them early? It’s true that stars win fantasy leagues but depth has to count for something.  

 

Rather than using it as an excuse to punt the position, I would argue that the lack of running back depth in fantasy is precisely why you should prioritize drafting a workhorse early. Let’s say you’re a devout believer in zero running back and wait until the fifth round to grab your first halfback. Based on ADP, your best options would be Lamar Miller, Sony Michel, Dion Lewis, Ronald Jones and Tevin Coleman. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row. But at that same juncture, you’d still be able to find a slew of productive wide receivers including Jarvis Landry, Alshon Jeffery, Brandin Cooks, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.

 

Maybe I’m just old school but I still prefer coming out of the first four rounds with two running backs and two wide receivers. And if you have a chance to land a player like Todd Gurley, who can rush for 1,300 yards while also leading his team in catches, essentially filling two fantasy roles simultaneously, why wouldn’t you? Yes, the running back position has changed, but not enough for us to completely abandon it, especially early in drafts where you’ll find talents like Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. All four are potential league-winners. 



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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