Bounce Back Fantasy Football Candidates
Everyone loves a good comeback story. They give us hope that no situation is too much for us to return from. In the late 90’s and 2000s, Robert Downey Jr. disappeared from the public eye in the midst of jail time, probation, and rehabilitation. Now, his name is synonymous with the most successful movie franchise in history. John Cena completely tore his pectoral muscle in 2007 and was slated to miss 6 months to a year. Instead, he returned in less than 4 months and won the WWE championship a few weeks later. I could list 10 other Hollywood and WWE bounce backs, but I know that’s not what you are here for. Let’s get on with it. The following are 4 NFL players who I believe can rebound from their disappointing 2016 seasons.
Tight End | Saints
Oh, Coby Fleener, you long-haired Bane of the fantasy community. Fool us once, shame on you Coby. Fool us twice, the shame still belongs to you, Mr. Fleener. You 6’6″ majestic unicorn of a TE, dripping with raw athleticism. In return for your 7 reception, 144 yard game against New England in 2014, you granted us 2 receptions for 28 yards against Jacksonville. When you gave us 109 yards and a TD against Atlanta last season, you followed it up with a 19 yard dud in San Diego. Oh, Coby Fleener, I should not trust you again. But, just like another Gridiron Experts writer, I cannot resist.
Fleener is the very definition of a post-hype sleeper. Drafted as the 6th overall TE in 2016 after his move to fantasy paradise in New Orleans, he finished as the TE15 in PPR leagues. He failed to produce more than 50 yards in 12 of his 16 games and scored just 3 receiving TDs, despite Brees throwing for 37. Unsurprisingly, he is being drafted as the TE16 in early 2017 drafts. If you have had any experience with Coby Fleener in the past, your gut probably tells you that his current ADP is just right. Unfortunately, our guts often lie to us, and the case of Coby Fleener is no different.
Brandin Cooks was traded to the Patriots during the offseason, taking 117 targets and 8 TDs from 2016 with him. Rising stars Michael Thomas and Willie Snead will absorb some of those targets, but Brees has a history of spreading the ball around. Fleener potentially moves from 4th on the target totem poll to 3rd, which historically is about a 25 target increase in a Drew Brees offense. Additionally, Fleener was #5 among all TEs in red zone receptions, yet was tied for 20th in TE receiving TDs. While this is partially due to Fleener’s general incompetence, the majority of it can be attributed to random chance. Positive TD regression is more likely than not in the high-octane and efficient Drew Brees offense.
Yes, everything negative you have heard about Coby Fleener is most likely true, but that is all the more reason to draft him. Fleener is still an incredible size-adjusted athlete under the age of 30. Fleener still plays for the most prolific pass offense in the NFL, with less potential target competition. I am not saying Fleener should be drafted as a top-6 TE like he was last season, but the same upside still exists. We witnessed Fleener’s floor in NO, and he is being drafted at that floor. The TE middle class is such a quagmire of mediocrity as it is, so why not be the last person to draft your TE. The fantasy community has finally given up on Coby Fleener, but you should not. You (probably) won’t regret it.
Wide Reciever | Lions
If you couldn’t tell with my best friend Coby, post-hype sleepers are my favorite variety of bounce back candidate, and Marvin Jones fits the bill to perfection. After leaving the Cincinnati Bengals in favor of the pass-happy Detriot Lions, the Marvin Jones hype sparked in late June and July. By the time draft season rolled around, it was a full-fledged wildfire. Jones was being drafted in the middle of the 5th round in PPR drafts, as the WR29. The situation has only improved with the departure of Anquan Boldin, yet Jones is currently being drafted in the 10th round as the WR45.
Through the first three games of the 2016 season, all the hype paid off and more. Jones amassed 29 targets for 18 receptions, 408 yards, and 2 TDs. Hopefully, you sold high because Jones did not top 100 receiving yards in a game the rest of the season. In fact, he had less than 50 receiving yards in 7 of his last 12 games.
As Jones struggled with nagging quad and foot injuries, Golden Tate returned to being Stafford’s go-to target. Jones even fell behind Anquan Boldin on the target totem pole, particularly in the red zone. Although Jones’s red zone target share was a respectable 20.3%, Boldin maintained a 26.7% share. The Jones hype train rolled out of view as quickly as it arrived.
But wait, there’s more! Jones was 14th in the entire NFL in Yards per Target, despite a career-low 53.4% catch rate. While a low catch rate is to be expected for deep threats, Jones has proven he can do more. In 2015, he filled a similar role for the Bengals and he posted a 63.1% catch rate on an identical 103 targets. With a moderate increase in targets from those vacated by Boldin and a move to somewhere between his 2015 and 2o16 catch rates, Jones could add 10+ receptions and 100+ yards to his 2016 total. Mix in the potential for an uptick in red zone targets and Jones could post WR2 numbers in 2017. I will happily conduct the 2017 Marvin Jones Post-Hype Sleeper Train. All aboard!
Running Back | Seahawks
Let me take you back to a simpler time. The 2013 and 2014 NFL seasons to be exact. Eddie Lacy’s first two seasons in the NFL. Back before he was defined by how much weight he gained in the offseason. Before his most newsworthy actions were completing P90X and earning weight loss bonuses. Those were the days, my friends. He notched RB8 and RB5 PPR finishes in those two seasons. In both seasons, he logged over 275 touches and totaled double-digit total TDs. Then the calendar turned and darkness fell on the Too Fat Kingdom.
In 2015, rumors of Lacy’s conditioning and playing weight began to circulate, which correlated with a sudden string of injuries. Amidst ankle, groin, and rib injuries, the Packers began to split the work between him and James Starks (yes, the same James Starks that is currently unemployed). After an offseason propelled by P90X hype, he showed up for the 2016 season looking slim and healthy. However, his season was lost to an ankle injury after 5 games and the Packers moved on. Enter the Seattle Seahawks.
This season he is set to form a committee with C.J. Prosise and Thomas Rawls. The Seattle Times has reported that he will split carries with Thomas Rawls, driving down his PPR league price to the late 6th round over the last month or so. I do not buy that rumor, and the reasons are twofold. First, Thomas Rawls is a below-average NFL running back prospect. Rawls ranked 52nd among RBs in the 2015 class in SPARQ score, in the 27th percentile of all NFL RBs. He could not get on the field during three seasons at the University of Michigan, and, after he transferred, only managed a mediocre 5.4 YPC at Central Michigan. Outside of his 2015 breakout 200-yard performance against the atrocious 49ers run defense, he has only managed 100 rushing yards in 2 of his 11 healthy games as the starter. In addition to the mounting evidence against him, Rawls has missed 8 games due to injury through his first two NFL seasons.
Yes, the Seahawks abysmal 2016 offensive line play and the presence of explosive sophomore RB C.J. Prosise are concerns. However, the team has made a concerted effort to improve the line with offseason additions and there are plenty of touches in a run-first offense to allow both Lacy and Prosise to be successful. Even with a modest projection of Eddie logging 50% of the Seahawks’ carries, he should have no problem accumulating 200+ touches, with the potential for more if he is productive. He is currently being drafted as the RB3o in PPR leagues. At that price, I will order a hearty serving of Eddie Lacy in my drafts this year.
Quarterback | Cardinals
Following a career year in 2015, he was drafted as the 8th overall QB in 2016 according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Through the first two weeks, he was poised to make good on that ADP. Then, the Cardinals traveled to Buffalo, NY. Most NFL fans will remember Palmer’s atrocious performance. 287 passing yards, 0 TDs, and 4 INTs, good for 7 fantasy points. Things didn’t improve much from there, either. From weeks 3-11, Palmer averaged a middling 17 fantasy PPG, while only throwing for 8 TDs. His arm strength looked diminished and his decision-making seemed to deteriorate more each week. These are the stats and images the fantasy football community remembers, but they do not tell the whole story. The gunslinger had more in the chamber.
Over the final 6 games, Palmer averaged 22.8 fantasy PPG and tossed 13 TDs. That’s almost 6 more PPG and 5 more TDs in one fewer game than the weeks 3-11 sample. His improvement cannot be explained away by facing an easier schedule. According to Football Outsiders pass defense DVOA rankings, in weeks 3-11 he faced the 19th ranked pass defense on average. In those final 6 games, he faced the 20th ranked pass defense on average. The pieces around him improving in health cannot explain the turnaround either. The Cardinals lost two starting offensive linemen for the season, Evan Mathis from Week 5 on and Jared Veldheer from Week 9 on. Additionally, John Brown struggled with hamstring issues, logging less than 50% of the snaps in 4 of the final 6 games.
Over those final 6 games, Palmer proved that he could still produce QB1 numbers without a healthy offense around him. The 2017 Cardinals should field a healthier and more potent offense, at least at the outset. Yet, Palmer is currently being drafted at his fantasy floor, QB20. Even if you regress his fantasy PPG average from the end of last season from 22.8 to 19 PPG, it would have been good enough to finish as the QB7 on the season. Don’t be afraid to take a shot on Palmer at his current ADP.