Many fantasy football projections are built on some very simple algorithms. Running back Y has been targeted between 59 and 76 times the last five seasons. Build in a mortality rate (as all running backs are just ticking time bombs as far as age and injury are concerned), and you have a pretty easy stat line.
Another good example would be a wideout coming off his best season, at 740 yards and five touchdowns. He signs as a restricted free agent elsewhere but has no real history of being a full-time, reliable wide receiver. In fact, he’d never had over 100 targets before this season, so why would you trust him now?
These players are Matt Forté (2013) and Emmanuel Sanders (2014). Forté, under head coach Marc Trestman, was targeted 95 and 130 times in his next two seasons. Trestman, of course, is synonymous with passes to running backs. He loves using them as underneath targets and on screens. Sanders, buried on the Pittsburgh depth chart, immediately became a perennial 1,000-yard receiver with the Broncos once given a bigger role, even beating out highly regarded players with better histories, including Wes Welker, for targets.
The point is: No matter how much we think we know about these players as statistical lines, a lot of the actual output comes down to coaching. If you see loud signals in the distance about a change, or you notice statistical patterns that point away from the common consensus, it’s worth examining the situation in a little more depth.
This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2017 Fantasy Football magazine, available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.
Without further ado, here are four situations I think merit the most assessment.
Christian McCaffrey as a workhorse receiving back
We’ve seen strong signs all offseason that Ron Rivera and company have wanted to change the Panthers’ offense after it struggled last season. They want to put less pressure on Cam Newton and give him easier targets.
Let’s state the obvious: It’s nice that the Panthers have Jonathan Stewart, but they didn’t draft a running back in the top 10 overall not to use him. McCaffrey fits all the talk Carolina has presented all offseason. He and second-round pick Curtis Samuel make this offense more dynamic and keep Newton from having to stand in the pocket for hours while his receivers get open. This is a matchup league, and the Panthers finally have some matchups working in their favor.
So yes, if you want to look at the coaching tenure, Carolina’s offense doesn’t throw passes at running backs. (The Panthers finished 31st in that category last year.)
But do you believe the stats, or do you believe the drumbeat? It’s pretty clear that only injury is going to stop McCaffrey from being one of the few backs (you can count them on one hand) who provide primary value as a runner and a receiver.
The No. 1 receiver in Kyle Shanahan’s offense is money
Shanahan got the 49ers coaching job by being regarded as an offensive savant and finding ways to make speed gadget players such as Taylor Gabriel play past their natural abilities.
But a secret about Shanahan’s system is that it almost always operates through one player. To wit: Julio Jones was targeted 129 times in 14 games last season, and that includes a few in which he was basically a decoy. In 2015, Jones had an obscene 203 targets. As Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2014, Shanahan called 47 targets for Josh Gordon in just five games. And with Washington in 2013, Pierre Garçon was targeted 181 times.
Shanahan’s No. 1 receiver in San Francisco this year, after the Niners released Torrey Smith, will be … Pierre Garçon again. Garçon is slightly older, but in a situation where nobody expects the 49ers to compete, passing situations and game scripts should be pretty easy to come by. So, if we know that Shanahan favors his No. 1 receiver, and we know that Garçon is going to get plenty of passes thrown his way this season, the only real knock we can come up with is that San Francisco’s offense stinks. That’s true, but as long as Garçon stays healthy, he is going to rack up a ton of fantasy points in relative obscurity. There are far worse third receivers to start with.
The rise of Jameis Winston
It’s not going to be very hard to figure out this narrative.
Winston has a huge arm and is capable of putting plays on tape that make scouts drool, even if he’s inconsistent. He completed just 60.8 percent of his passes last season and threw 18 interceptions. His offensive line is still young, if not outright bad.
And yet, all you’re going to hear about all offseason is that Winston is going to ascend this year. The Bucs did right by him, giving him actual passing-game weapons not named Mike Evans for the first time in his NFL career. DeSean Jackson is here as an accuracy eraser on deep balls and someone who can take the top off of any defense in the league. First-round tight end O.J. Howard out of Alabama helps the Bucs play a two-tight-end set and is as complete a tight end prospect coming out as we’ve seen in a long time. Also, third-round wideout Chris Godwin out of Penn State is a potential sleeper.
The Bucs’ coaching staff has vowed that this is the year the passing offense grows.
Quarterbacks who go No. 1 overall are held to a very high standard, and all signs are pointing up on Winston because this is supposed to be another year of growth. He’s inched into the top 10 in basically every fantasy publication because he’s supposed to take over as the next big thing.
But will he? He was one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league last year. He reminds me more of a young John Elway, with obvious tools but not a consistent enough idea of what he’s going to do with them. That scares me off the Bucs bandwagon. Perhaps Winston’s fantasy stats will go up, but that’s relying on an awful lot of wish-casting.
There are a lot of reasons to be more optimistic about Winston’s output, but I can’t believe he or this offense will generate a ton of top-10 fantasy numbers beyond Evans until I see him play up to that. I just didn’t see Winston play well enough last year to think he’s got that kind of season in him.
The rebirth of Charles Clay
After being signed away from the Dolphins as a restricted free agent in 2015, Clay was thought to be an ascending player, but his production failed to spike in Buffalo. His target number actually dropped from 84 to 77 in 2015, and it rebounded only to 87 last year.
But with Rex Ryan mercifully pushed off the deck, the Buffalo offense was handed over to coordinator Rick Dennison. Head coach Sean McDermott has more of a defensive background, and although you can see some of his Carolina fingerprints on offseason moves (adding Mike Tolbert), the offense should mostly be dictated by Dennison, the longtime Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak assistant. The Bills lost their two top wideouts by volume last year when Robert Woods fled to the Rams and Marquise Goodwin signed with San Francisco. Some of that slack might be picked up by Sammy Watkins, in the event that he can ever stay healthy for more than three games. More of it might be picked up by Zay Jones, the second-round wideout the Bills selected out of East Carolina.
But Dennison has a habit of force-feeding his tight ends. Even last year, with the lack of talent Denver had at tight end, he found 74 targets for Virgil Green, A.J. Derby and Jeff Heuerman. He found 77 targets for a washed-up Owen Daniels in 2015, and in Houston he found 87 targets for Garrett Graham in 2013. The tight end is a very key part of this offense, and since play action is a big factor, the tight ends will often find themselves all alone on the other side of the line of scrimmage on some sort of delay or fake, leading to big gains.
So keep in mind that Clay is a better player than those tight ends, and he’s on a team that may have a volume problem if Watkins remains hurt or becomes hurt again. And remember that Daniels was a consistent TE1 for most of his early days, even while Andre Johnson — still in his prime — was lining up outside.
There are lots of reasons to believe Clay’s downfall was due to the coaching staff, and there are just as many to believe that the new coaching staff will put him in a position to succeed. Keep an eye on him early, because he could take 120 targets this year even if he starts out undrafted.
– Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports.
(Christian McCaffrey photo courtesy of www.panthers.com)