By: Zach Haugen @zhaugenfootball
The Home Stretch Stock Watch
We are getting to playoff time already. Time flies when you are having fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this also means that it’s the time of year that about half of fantasy football teams come to the realization that their seasons are over. For most typical players this means that their brain switches completely off fantasy football, not to picked back up until next August. If you want to become a better fantasy football player, and make the playoffs next year, this is the last thing that you should do.
There are two potential fallacies that you can fall into when you don’t follow the season all the way through. First of all, you are going to pick up next August with the inherent bias that NFL is more or less the same as the last time you paid attention in week 13 of the prior season. This could not be further from the truth. There is so much change that happens not only in the offseason but over the final stretch of the season as well.
Secondly, you might think you might be able to make up for it by simply box score scouting, and looking at the end of year numbers. End of year numbers can be very misleading and are one of the biggest factors that lead to poor drafting the following year. Just because a player finished in the top 10 at his position doesn’t mean he should be considered there in the future. He might have played very poorly down the stretch, and the team lost confidence in him over the last few games. Likewise, just because you don’t see a player ranked highly at the end of the year, doesn’t mean he didn’t finish the year on fire and set himself up well for the following season.
I want to help you study the fantasy football landscape over the final stretch of the season by helping you know which players to focus on. I created a list of players that based on opportunity, or talent, or changing situations might be seen in a different light by season’s end. By following the success of these players, you can get an accurate snapshot going into the offseason of how bright the future is for that player for your redraft leagues next season or your dynasty leagues moving forward.
Jimmy Garoppolo: Garoppolo was a promising top 40 draft pick who has spent years under the tutelage of Tom Brady. While it’s true many Patriot’s backups have been fool’s good, Garoppolo seems to be different. He has the draft pedigree, and natural skills that the other Patriot’s backups have not had, and showed flashes of starting caliber tools during his time in New England. He will get his first start this week for the Kyle Shanahan 49ers offense, which is historically friendly to quarterbacks. That being said, Shanahan’s offense is also historically difficult to learn, and Garoppolo has been given a laughably small number of weapons to work with. Expect struggles early on, but look for signs of growth and comfort over the last few games of the year, such as Shanahan opening the offense and making it less conservative, and Garoppolo making pinpoint passes downfield. He could be a decent fantasy asset next season, if the 49ers are able to surround him with some help. But I would feel a lot better seeing some flashes of the upside to close out this year.
Jared Goff: The former Cal quarterback had a historically bad rookie season, but has followed it up with an impressive second season where he has averaged 8.21 yards per attempt and has an 18 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio. He has over 200 yards in 10 of his 11 games after only passing that mark twice in 7 games last year. It’s almost like coaching and system fits matter in the NFL, and Jeff Fischer held his job for way to long. The Rams have rolled through a decently easy schedule, but Goff has played noticeably worse against top half defenses. It hasn’t negatively affected his overall numbers too much though. In the next 3 weeks he plays the Cardinals, the Eagles, and the Seahawks. If he can put up good games against those defenses, I will be a believer in Goff going into future seasons. If he struggles however, it will cement my belief that he is a stream able, matchup dependent quarterback.
Jay Ajayi: Ajayi actually had solid metrics in the 7 games he played for the Dolphins this year. He was the league leaders in Yards after contact per attempt. The Dolphins line just wasn’t giving him any room to runs though, which led to a lot of disappointing fantasy performances. This is why it seemed like an exciting opportunity when he was traded to the Eagles who have a much better offensive line and an offense capable of moving the ball and getting in the end zone. But the Eagles perplexingly have not given Ajayi double digit touches in a single game yet since actively going out and trading for him. He has averaged an absolutely insane 9.7 yards per carry on those 20 carries, but until he gets the touches he can’t be trusted. In this offense, Ajayi has the potential to be a top 5 fantasy back in the future, but we have to see how the Eagles plan to use him first.
Devontae Booker: Booker was a solid prospect coming out of Utah, despite some athletic limitations. He has good size, is very versatile, and has displayed above average balance for a running back. There isn’t much about him that excites you though. He isn’t very explosive, his vision is pretty average, and he won’t intimidate defenders when he drops his shoulder. Booker has had a quiet year hiding behind CJ Anderson and Jamaal Charles, but has been getting more run as of late, despite an uninspiring 3.5 yards per carry. The Broncos seem absolutely convinced CJ Anderson is not there guy after this year, and have been slowly phasing him out of the game plan. This has led to a little bit more involvement out of Booker. I believe the rest of this season will be a showcase of sorts, which will allow Booker to audition of a lead role in the Bronco’s backfield next year. I am not sure I would hold my breath on him breaking out, but it is certainly worth watching as we try to sort out the future of this backfield.
Alex Collins: All of a sudden there are a lot of moving parts to this Raven’s backfield. Terrance West has faded away into the backdrop, due mostly to the emergence of Alex Collins. Collins is averaging a robust 4.9 yards per carry, and over his last 7 games he is getting nearly 15 carries per game. When you watch him play he looks the part of an early down bruiser, constantly churning out extra yardage. He has even gotten some occasional passing game work in the last few weeks to help bolster his floor. Danny Woodhead is back from injury, and will get most of the passing game work alongside Buck Allen. Collins will also have to contend with Kenneth Dixon next year, who will be back off suspension. Even so, if the Ravens keep giving Collins a heavy workload for the rest of the year, and he continues to look very impressive, he will be a great fantasy asset heading into next year.
Derrick Henry: Henry has been very efficient this year averaging 4.6 YPC on 114 carries, and actually has double digit carries in 6 of his 11 games played. But his usage in the passing game has been nonexistent. It is very clear to the entire analytics community, as well as scouting community that Henry should be getting the early down work over Demarco Murray at this point in time. Unfortunately, the Titans staff doesn’t see it that way. It will be interesting to see if they change their mind a little bit though, with each game Henry outperforms Murray. Henry is likely to be a huge breakout candidate next year, but I will only buy in if the Titans show some sort of interest in featuring him.
Samaje Perine: I was a big fan of Samaje Perine coming out of Oklahoma. He ran all over the Oklahoma record books, displaying a combination of power, balance, and grit. He struggled mightily however over the first half of 2017, falling behind plodder Rob Kelley on the depth chart and barely seeing action after a couple early fumbles. With injuries to Kelley and Chris Thompson though, Gruden had no choice but to put the ball in Perine’s hands. He has looked legitimately good over the last few weeks turning 59 carries into 255 yards (including back to back 100-yard rushing performances) and seeing some usage in the passing game as well. If Perine continues to flourish in the lead back role over the remainder of the season, he could be a much better value than his end of year stats portrays.
Jamaal Williams: The Packers running back is barely averaging over 3 yards per carry. It hasn’t been flashy. But over the last 3 weeks he has ridden over 19 touches a game to fantasy relevance. While he hasn’t been extremely efficient as a runner, he has been an efficient and utilized part of the passing game, turning 8 catches into 107 yards and a touchdown through the air in the last 2 weeks. He has also done his job of moving the chains for a struggling offense, which is what he was drafted to do. Williams might not be a superstar in the making, but if he continues to gain the trust of the Packers coaching staff, he could earn a very valuable role as the lead back of an Aaron Rodgers led offense next season. Pay attention to how the Packers divide up the backfield work going forward once Aaron Jones is healthy.
Corey Coleman/Josh Gordon: This Browns receiver situation should be fun to watch over the next 5 weeks. While very different builds, Coleman and Gordon are both elite athletes capable of making plays at all levels of the field. While Kizer has been up and down, he certainly has the arm to allow these guys to stretch the field. This time probably doesn’t have the firepower to support two high end fantasy wide receivers however, so the question will be which guy can take over that number 1 receiver role. My bet is on the young gun in Corey Coleman, who hasn’t been away from the game for multiple years. Gordon certainly has the talent though. Whoever emerges as the number 1 receiver on an improving team, could end up being a nice value and potential breakout in next year’s drafts.
Corey Davis: In his first career NFL game Corey Davis turned 10 targets into 6 catches for 70 yards. An injury then kept him out for a good chunk of his rookie year. In his four games since his return he has been pretty quiet converting less than half his targets into catches and failing to top 50 yards. Davis is clearly a talented player that the Titans drafted to grow with Mariota. He must break out of this funk for me to believe he should be considered a fantasy starter in upcoming years though. He should get the opportunity over the next 5 weeks, let’s see what he can do with it.
Josh Doctson: Doctson was a highly touted first round pick in 2016, and injuries kept him from making much of an impact as a rookie. He was slowly eased in throughout this season but has become a full time player for the redskins down the stretch. Doctson hasn’t had over 5 catches or over 85 yards in a game yet this year, but he has shown flashes. The targets are trending up throughout this season, and he has 5 touchdowns on the year. With Doctson becoming a full time player and seeing an increase in targets, it’s time to see what he is made of. If he starts to produce likely a weekly fantasy starter he could be a great value next year as a potential breakout player (assuming Cousins stays). If he continues to put up mediocre numbers and rely on touchdowns, he is a player I will likely be avoiding at his cost next year.
Marquise Lee/DeDe Westbrook: The Jaguars plan to play defense and run the ball down team’s throats is going well this year, which has been able to hide the fact that Blake Bortles is bad effectively. But when a team is winning games it’s good for all fantasy participants involved, which means even the Jaguars wide receivers have had relevance. Marquise Lee has been the number 1 receiver for most of the year. Since Allen Robinson went down in week 1, Lee has averaged 8 targets per game and has consistently gotten a handful of catches each game. DeDe Westbrook is the exciting rookie that came off of injured reserve a couple weeks ago, with expectations off the charts. While he hasn’t really had a blow up game or big play even he has seen 16 targets in his first 2 NFL games combined. If the Jaguars are a team on the rise, I expect one of these receivers to have fantasy relevance next year behind Allen Robinson. Lee seems like the logical compliment to Robinson as a high volume possession receiver, but Westbrook has the talent to establish himself as a legitimate threat every time he touches the ball. Look to see how the Jaguars use their receivers for the rest of the season to help make the decision on which guy to target in drafts next year.
Sammy Watkins: Before the season, if you would have told me that Jared Goff was playing at a near pro bowl level, and Watkins had played every game, I would have happily spent a late second round pick on Sammy Watkins. Turns out however, that Watkins has not been the main beneficiary of the offensive breakout. He has averaged 2.5 catches for 45 yards per game so far. He has basically only been a field stretching deep threat for the Rams, who gave up good capital to acquire him this offseason. Watkins has stayed healthy this year, which has been his one issue so far in his career. He just hasn’t had a good connection with Goff. Robert Woods became a go-to safety blanket for the second-year quarterback, and rookie Cooper Kupp stepped up in a big way. If Goff can continue to play at a high level, a receiver of Watkins talent level has sky high potential for fantasy purposes. If he can’t start getting it done in the end of this season though, with Robert Woods out due to injury, I can’t put much faith in Watkins next year.
Evan Engram: Engram has exploded this season, putting in one of the most impressive rookie tight end performances of all time. He is clearly a force to be reckoned with for the future. The only problem is that he had this breakout season with Eli Manning, who has now been benched and clearly seems to be done in New York. It remains to be seen how the other Giants quarterbacks will use Engram, and it seems quite possible it could be a downgrade for him. Engram is almost assured to end the year as a middling TE1, but if he fades hard down the stretch he could be overvalued next season based on his year-end numbers.
Hunter Henry: There are two important factors to fantasy success, talent and opportunity. Hunter Henry unarguably has talent. When given the opportunity he almost always capitalizes on it. The opportunity unfortunately has been hit or miss this year. With the Chargers getting hot here coming into the back stretch of the season, it will be interesting to see if they finally realize how important Hunter Henry is to their success. With Rivers historically locking into the tight end, Henry showing flashes of brilliance, and Gates hall of fame career clearly coming to an end, Henry has top 5 upside next year. But first we have to see if the Chargers will use him consistently on a weekly basis down the stretch.
OJ Howard: Howard is a freak athlete at the tight end position, and a highly valued first round pick. Like most rookie tight ends, he has had a quite non-descript start to his career this year. But he has shown flashes of upside, including a 6 catch, 98-yard, and a 2-touchdown performance in late October. Playing behind Brate, he simply hasn’t had the volume to be fantasy relevant. This has been particularly true with Winston under center. The last few weeks with Fitzpatrick, Howard has more targets and catches than Cameron Brate. The question is, will Winston go back to targeting Brate, or has Howard surpassed Brate in the pecking order regardless of who the quarterback is. If Howard out targets Brate rest of season, he will be a worthwhile late round TE flyer next year.