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NFL preseason is a lot like the focus of a long-term fantasy football winner: It’s not about results.
Whereas the seasoned fantasy owner knows that process is paramount and results are fickle, we learn the most from preseason play when we understand that the way a team uses a player is more important than the numbers that player posts in the weeks before Week 1 kickoff.
In other words, we should be focused on usage, not stat lines.
Who’s getting starters’ snaps? Where are guys being used in the offensive formation? What are quarterbacks being asked to do (or not do)? These are just a few of the questions we should be asking in the waning days of August, when all of our best-laid plans shift and morph and change until they’re nothing short of a mutant version of our draft day plans from 30 short days ago.
It’s that very preseason usage that has informed the obligatory bold predictions listed below, though I’d point out that intrigue with each of these players predated their encouraging preseason performances.
I understand that it’s fashionable for fake football pundits to make wildly outlandish statements meant to draw an audience, even if that audience is teeming with readers wielding Twitter pitchforks. I tried my best to justify each of these admittedly unlikely predictions with numbers and information, not pure speculation or musings.
Russell Wilson will be a top-3 quarterback
Probably if you’ve followed my writing this off-season, this prediction won’t bowl you over. I wrote in the spring that Wilson, on a team with a lousier running attack and a mediocre defense, would be an elite fantasy quarterback. I stand by that.
The Seahawks are still going to have a fine and dandy running game in 2014, and while the team’s ferocious defense might be in for some regression, it’s be foolish to think Wilson will be forced into weekly shootouts. That’d be nice, from a fantasy perspective, but that’s not my basis for charging that Wilson will be among fantasy’s three highest scoring signal callers come December.
In saying Wilson can post top-3 numbers, the question arises: Is his unholy efficiency nothing but a function of his lack of volume? Answering that question can tell us a lot about whether this is even possible.
Wilson, in two seasons as Seattle’s quarterback, has notched .60 fantasy points every time he’s dropped back. That’s good. No, that’s great. Running quarterbacks like Wilson naturally have an edge on this measurement — fantasy points per drop back (FPDB) — but Wilson’s two years of efficiency is remarkable. Only Cam Newton rivals that sort of FPDB efficiency.
A look at Wilson’s fantasy efficiency in games that saw his volume of opportunity rise shows that he can maintain that efficiency when he’s asked to do more. Wilson, in contests that saw him pass the ball more than 30 times, has averaged .57 FPDB. It’s even more encouraging when you consider Wilson only has three 300-yard games to his name.
Following a spring in which Seahawks coaches occasionally chirped about giving Wilson some slack in the way he runs the offense, game watchers have seen new and exciting looks from Seattle’s offense. That includes, but is not limited to, “formations and concepts to create more chances for Wilson to make plays on the perimeter” and empty formations ideal for short quarterbacks like Wilson.
These new wrinkles in the Seattle offense were seen most clearly in their preseason tilt against the Chargers, when Wilson tormented San Diego for 121 yards on 13 attempts and ran four times for 31 yards and two scores. Usage trumps results in the preseason, but it’s nice to see said usage lead to on-the-field results.
Wilson put up QB8 numbers in 2013 while serving as caretaker of the Seahawks’ offense. An incredible 21 quarterbacks dropped back to pass more than Wilson did last year. With an expanded role in an offense full of explosive runners and pass catchers, I don’t think it’s all that crazy to say Wilson could be an every-week starter and prove to be an elite fantasy producer.
Brandin Cooks will be a top-15 receiver
I think it’s regarded as general insanity to posit that the New Orleans rookie will outscore Marques Colston this season, so I don’t expect this particular hot take to be well received.
To start: Cooks’ best comparable is T.Y. Hilton, and I think that we’d all be pretty bullish on Hilton as an every-down player in New Orleans. Oh, and Cooks’ breakout age puts him firmly in “phenom” territory.
I won’t bore you with quotes from every Saints beat writer, coach, player, front office guy, and water boy saying Cooks has roasted defenders since the start of training camp. The team has a package of plays meant to “unleash” their “lightning bolt” when the regular season gets underway, and we saw some of that in early August, when Cooks smoked the Rams for 55 yards and a touchdown on five grabs. That’s 16.5 PPR points in one half of play, if you’re keeping score at home.
Probably it’s on the lazy side of analysis to say Cooks will absorb Darren Sproles‘ share of the Saints’ offensive pie, though it’s worth remembering that Drew Brees has hinted that this could be the case. A long statistical story short, Sproles averaged 6.5 targets per game in 44 regular season contests as a Saint. That comes out to 104 targets over 16 games. That’s a lot of action to be had by someone — or a couple someones — in the 2014 New Orleans offense.
Kevin Skiver, a writer for Canal Street Chronicles, penned an excellent piece examining how the Saints used Sproles from 2011-2013, and how Cooks doesn’t fit the Sprolesian mold like many charge.
“The fact is that Cooks and Sproles aren’t the same player. They may have a few similar tendencies, but there are attributes which set them apart,” Skiver wrote, adding that “Sproles beats defenders with cuts and reads, Cooks beats them with route-running and pure speed.” Skiver wrote that Cooks could — and should — be an integral part of the New Orleans attack, and will certainly be used in creative ways — not just split out opposite Colston.
The aged Colston, for what it’s worth, has median prospects of WR29, according to the Rotoviz similarity score app. I have his median projection at WR25 and his best-case scenario at WR16. I suppose this bold claim about Cooks includes a slightly less bold claim about Colston, who is being drafted one spot after Cooks. I think both receivers can prove draft day value plays.
Just as fantasy owners aren’t afraid to invest at Colston as the 31st receiver off the board, I’m not afraid to go in on Cooks as the 30th receiver drafted.
Travis Kelce will be a top-5 tight end
Well, that escalated quickly.
I never claimed to be among the fantasy analysts banging the Kelce drum before he returned from the frightening micro-fracture injury that kept him sidelined for all of 2013. But after taking a close look at Andy Reid’s tight end usage and the market share of Alex Smith’s tight ends (read: Vernon Davis), I’m firmly on board with Kelce as something close to this season’s Julius Thomas.
It was just five years ago that another Reid tight end, Brent Celek, posted top-4 fantasy numbers, with 76 receptions, 986 yards and eight touchdowns. Given the opportunity, I think it’s more than a little realistic that Kelce can finish 2014 with similar numbers.
Kelce, who is being drafted at the end of the 13th round, represents a low-risk flier who could quite easily morph into an every-week starter for a Kansas City offense that will benefit from regression in 2014. Chiefs beat writer BJ Kissel said on Twitter that despite Kelce being listed as the team’s No. 2 tight end behind Anthony Fasano, he should see plenty of snaps as the Chiefs use both tight ends on the field at the same time.
Kissel said Kelce’s usage will not be related to his standing on the depth chart.
In 47 preseason snaps, Kelce has caught six passes for 136 yards and two scores while breaking seven (seven!) tackles. And anyone fretting that Kelce’s snaps could be limited because of concerns about his run blocking ability should read this and relax. Kelce lacks nothing on the blocking front.
If you think Kelce as a top-5 tight end is bold, I wouldn’t blink at Kelce as a top-3 option. But we’ll stick with top-5 for now.
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