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Who Do Ya Trust?

By Doug Orth | 8/31/21 |

Fantasy football drafts can often be a game of "who do ya trust?" The industry as a whole spends too much time talking about the first round or two when the reality is the majority of leagues are won by what happens after that. In the spirit of trying to accomplish two things at once, I will spend the rest of this week focusing on players I trust the most and least outside the top 20 of my Big Board.

Players I trust the most relative to where they are usually drafted (position ranking on my Big Board in parenthesis):

Chris Carson

Chris Carson (RB15)

Let's rattle off Carson's shortcomings: he is a take-no-prisoners runner that may run too physical, opening himself up to more contact and likely increasing his chances of getting hurt. (To that end, he has missed seven of a possible 48 regular-season games over the last three seasons. The Seahawks were so petrified of his injury history that they handed Carson a two-year deal worth $10.4 million.) That about sums up his shortcomings. While Carson did miss four games last year (and will remain an injury risk given his aggressive running style), he managed to set a career high for rushing average (4.8 yards/carry), tie his previous best reception total (37) and eclipse his previous best in receiving yardage (287) and receiving touchdowns (four).

All Seattle did in the offseason was upgrade the offensive line (traded for OG Gabe Jackson) and bring in a young new offensive coordinator (former Rams pass game coordinator Shane Waldron) to install an offense that mimics that of the team he just left. His primary competition for backfield touches has never been able to stay healthy (Rashaad Penny), making him as good of a bet for a featured role as any back outside of the first two rounds. Carson's supporting cast is as good as it has ever been and more than capable of keeping an extra defender out of the box. Beyond injury concerns, it is hard to poke too many holes into his fantasy resume.

Ryan Tannehill (QB8)

Maybe Tannehill just had the quietest 40-touchdown season in recent memory. Maybe drafters think Tennessee is Derrick Henry and a bunch of bums after A.J. Brown. Maybe people are fading him due to an unsustainable TD rate. Something does not add up with where he is usually drafted (around the eighth round) and what he has accomplished since taking over the starting job in Tennessee. While the transition from former OC Arthur Smith (new Atlanta head coach) to Todd Downing is a bit of a concern, it would be difficult to say the Titans did not at least break even this offseason (adding Julio Jones after Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith left).

The most likely explanation for the reason Tannehill continues to be undervalued is that the majority of casual fans believe the offense revolves around Henry and don't realize Tennessee was tied for second in the league in total offense (6,343 yards); the Titans were one of only five teams to average 30 points. Even at age 33, Tannehill still serves as a viable threat as a runner (266 rushing yards and seven TDs in 2020). Even if he is unable to repeat either one of those numbers this season, the combination of Brown and Jones almost screams more volume and efficiency in the passing game. Another season with 40 total touchdowns is a strong possibility.

Marvin Jones (WR32)

Watching Jones suffer a sprained AC joint in last week's Monday Night Football loss to the Saints makes me a bit leery about this call, but there has been no indication his injury will be a serious issue or even keep him from playing Week 1. With that said, he has finished no worse than WR27 in 0.5 PPR in his last three (mostly) healthy seasons with two top-15 finishes. That was partly a result of scoring exactly nine touchdowns in each of those years and playing with Matthew Stafford most of that time, yet it is hard to knock someone who has been as consistently productive as Jones has been.

While past performance does not guarantee future success, Jones has been Trevor Lawrence's favorite (or at least most trusted) target all summer long and should also maintain his preferred standing in the offense after working with and under OC Darrell Bevell in Detroit the last two seasons. For whatever reason, Jones continues to go well after teammates D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault in most drafts - sometimes as late as the double-digit rounds. That is great value for a player who has proven multiple times he is (and can be) a solid WR3 with a high-end WR4 floor.

Elijah Moore (WR44)

Corey Davis has generated a ton of buzz (and rightfully so) with what he did in the preseason, which was largely a function of how often he was targeted by rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. It is important to remember his preseason volume happened in part because Moore did not play due to a quad injury. The rookie returned to practice within the last week after about two weeks on the shelf, so Davis could have cemented his place as the clear No. 1 receiver in the offense in the interim. I doubt that is the case, however.

There are not many times I would recommend buying offseason "hype" over camp reports or preseason action (all of which are far from great predictors of future success), but this is one situation in which I will buy the hype - mostly because it matches up with what I saw from him in college. The degree to which he produced and created separation in the SEC bodes well for him being a future star in this league, and the offseason reports from the team's beat writers often suggested he was the best player on the field. When it will happen is the great unknown, but I do expect Moore to emerge as the top option in the passing game before the end of the season.

AJ Dillon (RB33)

"Trust" is probably a strong word to use with Dillon, although the way I mean it here is that I trust him to take advantage of the opportunities he receives in 2021. Aaron Jones is a stud and will continue to be a stud for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, I can easily see Green Bay taking a page out of the Saints' personnel playbook and using Dillon in the same way New Orleans has used Latavius Murray in recent years, while Jones ends up playing the Alvin Kamara role. That may not be enough to make Dillon a weekly starter in most fantasy leagues, but I do expect him to have some degree of standalone value. Dillon's hands are not his best attribute, but it is a ridiculous notion that he is a complete zero in that regard (lack of opportunity does not always equal inability).

The point to be made here is that Dillon will not be used in the same way Jamaal Williams was because they are not the same kind of back, but that does not mean he cannot have a bigger role than Williams did. With that said, the reason to draft and stash Dillon is not to have another high-end flex option on the bench, but rather secure a player that could be a top-10 fantasy back if Jones misses time.

Gerald Everett (TE13)

Strangely, Everett is one of those players I like for the upcoming season but have very little exposure to with the teams I have drafted to this point. (I have eight high-stakes teams left to draft, however.) That is more coincidence than it is hypocrisy, as most of my teams have Travis Kelce, Darren Waller or Mark Andrews. Unfortunately for 75 percent of fantasy managers in 12-team leagues, they will not get one of those three (and there are only so many T.J. Hockensons and Kyle Pitts to go around). Much like Marvin Jones above, Everett has that little "in" with the new play-caller in Seattle from their time together with the Rams (Waldron). Of course, familiarity with a new play-caller would be a poor singular reason to believe in a player for fantasy purposes.

Pro Football Focus notes that Everett leads all tight ends in forced missed tackle rate (25 percent) since the start of the 2018 season. Russell Wilson has typically been able to make his tight ends relevant for fantasy purposes - especially in the red zone - and is an obvious upgrade over Jared Goff. Furthermore, Everett's primary competition at the position (Will Dissly) has been snake-bitten by injuries since he entered the league. While DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett could command too much of the target share for Everett to reach his ceiling, their presence should also guarantee Everett regularly sees a linebacker matched up with him down the middle of the field. That is a matchup he should win an overwhelming majority of the time.

Players I trust the least relative to where they are usually drafted (position ranking on my Big Board in parenthesis):

Adam Thielen

Adam Thielen (WR21)

Thielen's age (31) concerns me slightly, but the bigger concern is how much longer will he remain Kirk Cousins' primary target in the red zone? One would have to think that Thielen's 19-10 edge in red zone targets and 13-8 advantage in targets inside the 10 last season lean slightly more in Justin Jefferson's favor this year. While Thielen's route-running prowess should allow him to enjoy some degree of staying power in this offense for at least another year or two, his high TD rate is not the only thing that concerns me. This offense will experience a drop-off as it transitions from former OC Gary Kubiak to his son (Klint), so the question becomes how significant that drop-off will be. The offensive line is in arguably worse shape than it was at the end of last year and will no longer have the highly regarded OL coach Rick Dennison on the field on game day to work his magic.

Thielen's route-running and red zone dominance contributes largely to his somewhat favorable ranking above. If Cousins becomes less reliant on him in 2021, Thielen won't come close to scoring 14 TDs again (odds are he won't do it anyway) and leave his fantasy managers with a 70-catch receiver who falls below 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns (making him a more expensive Marvin Jones).

Mike Davis (RB28)

I very much liked Davis as a prospect coming out of South Carolina in 2015 (specifically after watching him in 2013). He played well in relief of Christian McCaffrey last season. He filled in well for brief stretches in between. That is the good news. The bad news is he is a 28-year-old who has rushed for more than four yards per carry once in his career (3.7 career average) and was splitting time with Rodney Smith at the end of last year. In short, Davis is a running back who is past his physical prime and has yet to display any kind of efficiency. He has also never shown an ability to consistently deliver while handling a heavy workload for an entire season (his 146 catches in 2018 were his most prior to last year's 224) or produced over expectation when he has been given a chance.

The two things he has working most in his favor in 2021 are the expectation Atlanta will be working in negative game script fairly often (Davis can catch the ball) and the promise of a big workload given the lack of a viable alternative in the Falcons' backfield. When a running back's best fantasy attributes are situational (team should trail a lot) and/or involve a perceived lack of talent behind him on the depth chart, that should be a red flag. It would not surprise me if Atlanta employs a committee backfield by the end of October. It also would not surprise me if Qadree Ollison overtakes him as a starter at some point.

Jalen Hurts (QB11)

I may be more conflicted about Hurts than any other player in 2021. On one hand, he is already tied for fourth in league history with two career games of 300-plus passing yards and 60-plus rushing yards. On the other hand, how long can fantasy managers count on a quarterback with accuracy questions when he is also running about 10 times per game? A case can be made that Lamar Jackson has stayed healthy despite a heavy rushing workload since becoming a pro, but Hurts typically takes more punishment on his runs. How much will new HC Nick Sirianni protect him? Will he? On the surface, the recent acquisition of Gardner Minshew should not affect Hurts all that much either, but it is a bit odd the Eagles didn't opt for a more athletic quarterback like Hurts. (Yes, there is a shortage of athletic quarterbacks available, but it raises some doubt how much Sirianni wants to build an offense around someone like with Hurts' skill set when his backups are nothing like him.)

There is reason to be excited about the upgrade that DeVonta Smith represents at one receiver spot, but the promise that Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins offer is exactly that at the moment promise. Dallas Goedert is another reason to believe in Hurts. The offensive line should be in much better shape with RT Lane Johnson and RG Brandon Brooks completely healthy. Thus, my conflict with Hurts: he could easily finish as a top-five fantasy quarterback OR get benched/injured by the end of October.

Kenny Golladay (WR39)

Forget for a second that Golladay spent more than half of last season on the sideline with a hip injury and has missed a bunch of time this summer with a hamstring issue. Golladay scored 11 times in 2019 - the one season he played in every game. He has 10 total touchdowns in his other three seasons combined (31 games). His career catch rate is 58.1 percent. Last season (62.5) marked the first time he bested that mark. While part of that is a function of the deep routes (14.6 aDOT each of the last two seasons) he ran in Detroit, former teammate Marvin Jones (13.0 and 12.7) managed catch rates of 68.1 and 66.1 percent on slightly shorter routes.

None of this is to suggest Golladay is a bad receiver or incapable of being a No. 1 receiver in the league. What it does suggest is the statistical upside he possesses - at least in the mind of fantasy managers - is based mostly on what appears to be an outlier season. Add to that a downgrade from Matthew Stafford to Daniel Jones and more competition for targets than he had with the Lions and we have the makings of what could be a bumpy ride for Golladay even if he stays healthy. A good season for Golladay would include elite-level usage in the red zone, and that assumes he has no more injury issues (a risky proposition for any player who suffers a soft-tissue injury in the preseason). Can that happen with a healthy Saquon Barkley around? Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram are going to get their share of looks near the end zone as well.

Brandin Cooks (WR46)

Cooks has been a favorite of mine for a while, but I do not understand the fascination with him as a value pick this season. The most common argument in his favor is that he has produced everywhere he has gone despite changing teams three times since 2016. While that is a true statement, it is also lazy analysis. The majority of passes Cooks has caught over that time have come from Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Jared Goff and Deshaun Watson. Tyrod Taylor does not belong in that discussion, and I'm not sure Davis Mills can be expected to perform any better than Taylor will this year if/when he gets his shot to play. The most productive receiver Taylor has had in any season he has started the majority of his team's games is Sammy Watkins in 2015 (56-999-8 on 90 targets from Taylor). Watkins is the only receiver to catch more than 50 balls in a season from Taylor.

Let's say the last sentence was not enough to scare off fantasy managers. Another common defense of Cooks being a value pick is how often Houston will be throwing in garbage time. That assumes at least a couple of things: 1) Taylor can be accurate enough (and opts to throw versus run) on a consistent enough basis to move the ball in garbage time and 2) Houston's offense is capable of sustaining offense in general. The Texans are built similar to the Ravens (but with nowhere near the same talent). It seems poignant at this time to note new HC David Culley spent the last two years as the pass game coordinator in Baltimore. In short, this offense should be expected to try to run as much as possible with its stable of three running backs and Taylor. We have already established there is little hope for consistency with any of Taylor's receivers, so what Cooks' fantasy managers have to hope for is a repeat of Watkins' good luck in the touchdown department. The problem with that: Houston may very well have the worst offense in the league this year.

Tyler Higbee (TE14)

The arrival of Matthew Stafford undoubtedly increases the fantasy expectations for every key member of the Rams' offense. Based solely on the upgrade from Jared Goff to Stafford, Higbee should be considered a near-lock to improve on last year's TE18 finish. Unfortunately, the industry seems to believe Stafford's history with tight ends - T.J. Hockenson most recently and Eric Ebron a few years ago - is enough reason to believe Higbee is ready to reemerge as a fantasy force in the same way he did to close out 2019. I suppose that if the Rams' offense really takes things to the next level, a top-10 finish at his position is possible, but I do not like his odds. Here is why:

When Higbee blew up down the stretch two years ago, he did so in part because Brandin Cooks was getting phased out of the offense and Gerald Everett was hurt. The 2021 edition of the Rams should have no shortage of pass-catching options. While DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell will not be key cogs in the offense, they should combine to draw about 10 percent of the targets. The passing game will continue to revolve around Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp - a combination that could soak up about 45 percent of the targets. The key differences from 2019 to 2021, however, are what should keep Higbee in check. Van Jefferson will be a factor, especially if HC Sean McVay decides he can rely on his preferred three-wide packages again. The other problem for Higbee will be Jacob Harris. It means very little that Harris will likely play a limited role as a rookie. What means more is that when he is on the field, there is virtually no chance he will stay in and block. Even if Harris plays only 20 percent of the snaps in 2021, the plays he is on the field could result in a lot more plays where Higbee does not run a route. Harris' presence figures to be a problem for Higbee's supporters all year.

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