News & Analysis

5 second-year players not to give up on in fantasy

By Mike Castiglione
May 16, 2018

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Nov 26, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25) carries the ball against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As if there’s not already enough uncertainty to try and navigate as fantasy owners, few conundrums are as impactful as how we valuate second-year players coming off inconsistent rookie seasons. The sample size is small, so we’re left combing through old scouting reports and assessing how the projections panned out, and what new information will drive the analysis for the upcoming season.

Was that solid four-game stretch an anomaly or a harbinger of things to come?

Were there more red flags or reasons for optimism? Why?

These are the kinds of internal debates I probably spend way too much time contemplating, but the draft-day stakes can be quite high if the valuation ends up being spot on or way off. You certainly don’t need anyone to suggest not giving up on Dalvin Cook, considering he stood among the top-10 fantasy RBs prior to getting hurt in Week 4. But if one or more of the players below has tumbled off your radar, it might be worth looking through a different lens.

Running back

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

The knocks on Mack have to do with his rather pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry or with 30 of his 93 rookie carries going for no gain or negative yardage. However, he also had another 20 carries go for six or more yards, finishing 12th out of 53 qualifiers in elusive rating. For some context, Saquon Barkley led all RBs at the combine in percentage of runs to gain negative yardage, and his 0.46 YPC when contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage ranked 57th out of 58 qualifying RBs in this draft class. You may have also heard of Barry Sanders, who holds the NFL record for most carries for negative yardage as well as total rushing yards lost by a running back (1,114).

Elite players aside, our analysts have found that rushing production has a stronger correlation to run-blocking than to individual RB performance. The Colts have made upgrades to an O-line that was among PFF’s worst-graded run-blocking units, as Mack gained a ridiculous 80 percent of his rushing yards after contact (i.e. on his own). Indy has 262 unclaimed handoffs from a year ago and, ultimately, the front office opted to punt on free agency and the first three rounds of the draft, even with Mack undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Time will tell if he learned a thing or two from Frank Gore about staying on the field gaining the tough yards.

D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans

The Texans opted not to add any new blood to their backfield mix, which is particularly good news for Foreman. The bruising back broke 10 tackles in 78 rushes as a rookie, with 2.6 of his 4.2 YPC average coming after contact. In fact, Foreman appeared on the verge of a breakout with 10 carries for a personal-best 65 yards and a pair of scores in Week 11 before suffering a season-ending injury. Overall, his rookie usage was a bit odd as he alternated double-digit carries every other game he was active. Can Foreman expect more consistent usage in 2018?

After averaging a career-best 5.1 YPC with Miami in 2014 and reaching 1,000 yards despite never logging 20 carries in a game, Lamar Miller has seen his YPC dip in each of the last three seasons. He averaged a career-worst 3.7 YPC in 2017 and finished 47th out of 53 qualifiers in elusive rating. Perhaps not coincidentally, he’s seen heavier volume in each of the past two seasons with Houston than in any of his four years with the Dolphins. So far, that increased workload hasn’t paid dividends, and Houston does have a younger back in the fold who ran for 2,000-plus yards as a junior at nearby Texas.

Wide receiver

Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

You won’t find much evidence in the film room or in our signature stats from 2017 that would suggest Davis is in for a big breakout campaign. But Marcus Mariota does happen to be a prime bounceback candidate after tossing just 13 TDs, and it’s a good bet (I can say that now!) he’ll stay busy this offseason building a rapport with the player drafted to be his top receiving option. We can debate just how big a sophomore leap is on the horizon for Davis in a run-first attack, but it would be a mistake to discount a player who graded as a top-10 college receiver in the nation for three straight years.

Of course, Davis also was forced to play catchup after missing virtually all of the offseason program through preseason, only to then re-injure his hamstring in September and wind up missing five games. However, he still averaged six targets per game and showed well in the Divisional playoff round with a pair of TD catches. Curiously, Davis found pay dirt 19 times in 2016 but drew only one end-zone target as a rookie. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, after guiding the resurgent Rams and Falcons, will be tasked with untapping Davis’ still massive upside.

Dede Westbrook, Jacksonville Jaguars

While an easy hold in dynasty formats, the re-draft community is not particularly keen on Westbrook coming off an injury-shortened rookie campaign, as evidenced by his current 14th-round ADP as the WR59 over on Fantasy Football Calculator. The thing is, Westbrook’s production at every level is tough to dismiss. After winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top collegiate receiver in 2017, he averaged 96 yards with two TDs in three preseason games, only to see that momentum derailed by a core muscle injury. Upon returning, the rookie averaged seven targets per game Weeks 11-17 and wound up playing 75 percent of the offensive snaps including playoffs.

With Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns no longer around in Jacksonville, there is hardly a clear-cut top dog in the pecking order, and not one with Westbrook’s upside. Interestingly, collegiate catch rate has a much higher correlation to NFL success (0.50) than yards per route run (0.07). After dropping just four out of 84 catchable passes in his final year at Oklahoma, Westbrook dropped four of 31 catchable targets in 2017. Even if he’ll never be the type to consistently win 50/50 balls, it’s safe to anticipate some positive regression in the hands department for a player who still managed 9.4 fantasy points per game as a rookie.

Tight end

Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams

Coming out of South Alabama, the PFF scouting report on Everett painted the picture of a raw former hoops standout who needed some coaching to clean up his technique in order to someday become one of the game’s top tight ends. While a long way from any legit comparisons to Antonio Gates — or even former Sean McVay focal point Jordan Reed — there is reason for optimism in Year 2.

Evan Engram notwithstanding, successful rookie TE1s are the unicorns of fantasy football. Everett did flash his big-play potential with three of his 16 catches going for more than 35 yards. It’s also worth noting that while Tyler Higbee held a commanding 731-296 edge in snaps, his superior blocking grade translated to only a 268-205 margin in snaps in route. Barring a breakout preseason, Everett is likely to be left on waivers to start the season. Still, he’s a name to circle before he starts stringing together quality starts.

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