Fitz on Fantasy: 10 Most Intriguing Players of 2015
People magazine runs an annual feature on the 25 most intriguing people of the year. Barbara Walters hosts an annual special on the 10 most fascinating people of the year. Borrowing People’s adjective and Babs’ number, we offer you the 10 most intriguing fantasy football performers of 2015.
This is a subjective list, of course. It might not include some of the players most intriguing to you personally. But we think you’ll agree that these players engender a wide range of opinions among the fantasy community. Half of them changed teams in the offseason. A few are older players adapting to different environments. A few are young breakout candidates. But let’s start with a young player who has already broken out and whose full-season potential stirs the imagination…
1. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants — One of the more vigorous fantasy football bar (or Twitter) arguments over the coming weeks will be where Beckham should rank among the elite wide receivers: Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and perhaps one or two others. Some will put OBJ at or near the bottom of that list due to small sample size. But those rookie-year numbers … my god, what a sample. To wit: 12 games, 91 catches, 1,305 yards, 12 TDs. And really, he did nearly all of that damage in just nine games. After missing a month with a hamstring injury, Beckham had fewer than five catches and 45 yards in each of his first three appearances (though he did have three TDs over that span). If you take what Beckham did in his last nine games and project the numbers over a 16-game season, it works out to 144 catches for 2,132 yards and 16 TDs. Yes, yes, small sample size, blah, blah, blah. And, sure, Beckham’s recurring hamstring troubles are mildly concerning. But it’s fair to wonder whether our eyes are fully open with regard to OBJ. Could this be a transcendent player destined to become a standard-bearer for all time? Could he be the equal of Jerry Rice? Consider that over Rice’s 20-year NFL career, there were only six seasons in which he had more than the 91 receptions Beckham had last year. In only 7-of-20 seasons did Rice have more than the 1,305 receiving yards Beckham had last year. In only 8-of-20 seasons did Rice have more than the 12 TDs Beckham had last year. And Beckham compiled those numbers in 12 games. Rice played a full regular-season schedule in 18-of-20 seasons. A few months from now, will it seem preposterous that Beckham wasn’t regarded as the consensus No. 1 receiver heading into the heart of the fantasy draft season?
2. LeSean McCoy, RB Eagles — The change of scenery alone makes McCoy an intriguing figure. The Eagles flipped their star running back to the Bills for a linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who’s coming back from a torn ACL. McCoy will be the centerpiece of Rex Ryan’s ground-and-pound-because-our-passing-game-sucks offense, so workload shouldn’t be a problem. Buffalo’s offensive line was actually a better run-blocking unit last season than Philadelphia’s injury-plagued O-line, according to Football Outsiders, though both units rated well below average. Buffalo’s impotent passing game will probably require McCoy to fight his way through a lot of eight-man defensive fronts. The supporting cast may be a downgrade overall, but McCoy still figures to return first-round fantasy value, or close to it, if he’s still, ahem, the real McCoy. But what are we to make of Shady’s 2014 season? McCoy ran for 1,319 yards last year, the second-best rushing total of his career, and though his 4.2 yards per carry was a drop from a career average that now stands at 4.6, it was still a respectable number. But McCoy scored only five TDs last season, he was a complete nonfactor as a pass catcher, and, well, he just didn’t look like himself for much of the year. McCoy is only 27, but is it possible that he’s already past peak and that Chip Kelly picked exactly the right time to pull the ripcord?
3. Drew Brees, QB, Saints — The fantasy community is divided on this future Hall of Famer’s outlook for 2015. Some expect little if any statistical slippage and would be happy to take advantage of any draft day discount. Others fret about Brees’ advancing age (36) and the exodus of pass-catching weaponry from New Orleans. The former is the lesser concern, as Brees is fastidious about maintaining his fitness. But the loss of stud TE Jimmy Graham and underrated WR Kenny Stills is truly troublesome. If you’re convinced that Brees will once again throw for around 5,000 yards and 33-35 TDs, take this challenge: Write down the names of the Saints’ pass catchers and try to figure out how 5,000 yards and 33 TDs might be allotted. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Files fingernails; checks Twitter) Not easy, is it? It’s reasonable to pencil in strong numbers for talented young WR Brandin Cooks, and newly arrived RB C.J. Spiller could compile nice receiving stats as Brees’ safety valve out of the backfield. But then what? Does anyone foresee a career year out of Marques Colston at age 32? Is TE Josh Hill going to mitigate the loss of Graham? Will WR Nick Toon suddenly play like his father, former Jets great Al Toon? (Tip from a Wisconsin grad: Don’t bet on it.) Will either of Seantavius Jones or Brandon Coleman come up with an out-of-the-blue 1,000-yard season? Good luck to you this year, Mr. Brees.
4. Joseph Randle, RB, Cowboys — The Cowboys ranked second in the NFL in rushing last year with 2,354 yards, the vast majority of which were gained by DeMarco Murray, who left Dallas for Philadelphia in free agency. Randle will enter training camp as the lead candidate to replace Murray and reap the benefits of running behind the Cowboys’ road-grading offensive line, the best run-blocking unit in the league last year, according to Football Outsiders. It’s a potential windfall for a running back, but according to the loquacious Randle, “there was a lot of meat left on the bone” by Murray, the NFL’s 2014 rushing champ. Randle averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season, but his rookie year was unremarkable, and he’s had only 105 carries as a pro. It’s worth recalling that Randle was arrested last fall for shoplifting cologne and underwear. Many of the fantasy cognoscenti are skeptical that Randle can nail down Murray’s old job and keep it. But if not Randle, who else? The ghost of Darren McFadden? Pint-sized third-down back Lance Dunbar? Ryan Williams and his banjo-string knee ligaments? Redskins reject Lache Seastrunk? Randle is undoubtedly going to get his shot, and his current ADP of RB19 (per ADP Calculator) shows that there are some eager speculators out there. But at that price, there is potential for an outcome considerably more foul-smelling than Randle’s preferred brand of cologne.
5. Andre Johnson, WR, Colts — It’s a shame the 34-year-old Johnson didn’t get a chance to play with a top QB earlier, when he was still in his salad days, but Andrew Luck should provide some zesty dressing to perk up those slightly wilted greens. For all the receptions and yardage Johnson has piled up over 12 NFL seasons, his TD totals have been curiously low. He’s averaged just 5.3 TDs per season over his career, has never hit double digits in a single season, and hasn’t had more than five TD catches since 2010. Perhaps the lackluster TD count can be blamed on the fact that Johnson has spent his career fielding flutterballs from the likes of David Carr, Tony Banks, Sage Rosenfels, Matt Schaub (who admittedly had some non-crappy years), T.J. Yates and Case Keenum. Even if Luck is able to coax a few more TDs out of Johnson, the old warhorse might not be able to sustain his prodigious target and reception totals on a team so laden with pass-catching weaponry.
6. Frank Gore, RB, Colts — As with Andre Johnson, the “highly accomplished geezer joins Colts” angle makes Gore a fascinating fantasy commodity. Gore has spent all 10 of his NFL seasons with the 49ers, the last nine of them as San Francisco’s undisputed feature back. He hasn’t missed a game over the last four years and has pretty much established himself as the walking definition of a steady RB2. However, at age 32, Gore is rapidly approaching the age at which running backs reach the cliff and tumble off like lemmings. Can Gore stiff-arm Father Time for at least one more year? And then there’s the change of venue and what it might mean to him. Gore isn’t likely to get the same quality run-blocking that he’s enjoyed in recent years, but the presence of Andrew Luck will mean fewer tacklers to contend with along the defensive front. It will also be interesting to see how much Gore is used as a receiver. You have to blow off a layer of dust before checking Gore’s receiving stats, but there was a time when ol’ Frank was a pretty handy pass catcher. The Colts might be just the team to knock the cobwebs off Gore’s pass-catching skills. But then again, Gore is such a damn good pass blocker that the Colts might prefer to have him serve as a Secret Service agent to Luck.
7. Martavis Bryant, WR, Steelers — As a rookie, Bryant played only 43 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps and caught just 26 passes, but he scored eight TDs in 10 games and averaged an eye-popping 21.1 yards per catch. Bryant is poised to be a full-time starter this year opposite reception machine Antonio Brown, so Bryant’s snap count and target volume could increase dramatically, though his TD rate and yardage per catch are destined to come down to more earthly levels. Still, even with some inevitable regression in efficiency, Bryant’s big-play ability is alluring, and 6-foot-5 receivers who run sub-4.4 40s are rare specimens indeed. But is a full-scale breakout inevitable? Brown will once again Shop-Vac targets by the gallon, so Bryant owners may have to deal with some serious week-to-week volatility. And while Markus Wheaton isn’t apt to challenge Bryant for playing time, the Steelers spent a third-round draft pick on WR Sammie Coates of Auburn, who has a skill set similar to Bryant’s. (In fact, NFL.com’s pre-draft profile of Coates pegged Bryant as the most comparable NFL player.) Bryant will be irresistible to a great many fantasy owners in the weeks to come, but he carries a wider range of possible outcomes than many of his young-WR peers.
8. Todd Gurley, RB, Rams — Is it a bad omen that when I type “Gurley” into a text message, my phone wants to auto-correct it to “Gurney”? The former University of Georgia star is one of the finer RB prospects to come out of the college ranks in recent memory, offering a rare blend of power and speed. In dynasty leagues, your mandate is to draft Gurley if you can. But the valuation of Gurley in redraft leagues is trickier since he’s still on the mend after tearing his ACL in November. Gurley almost certainly won’t play in the preseason and could go on the PUP list, in which case he’d miss about half of the fantasy season. Even if Gurley’s recovery is speedy and he’s active for Week One, the Rams are apt to treat their rookie jewel with kid gloves and let the capable Tre Mason do most of the heavy lifting early on. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. What if the Rams take Gurley out of bubble wrap sooner than expected? Even if they don’t, Gurley could make a big splash late in the year, when fantasy seasons are on the line. That is, of course, if he’s able to stay healthy once he’s healed. Gurley may be the single biggest risk-reward play of the 2015 fantasy season.
9. Sam Bradford, QB, Eagles — This isn’t really about what you think of Sam Bradford. This is a referendum on Chip Kelly. If you’re among those who believe the Chipster can walk on water and raise unwanted quarterbacks from the dead, you’re probably convinced that he can wring high-QB2 or even QB1 value out of Bradford. If you’re among those who feel the deification of Kelly has been a bit much (cough, cough, me, cough), then you’re likely more dubious about Bradford’s prospects. The former No. 1 draft pick out of Oklahoma put up pedestrian numbers in four seasons with the Rams, though he was showing a bit more spark in the last of those seasons before tearing his ACL seven games into the year. It was the second left ACL tear in 10 months for Bradford, who comes not just with medical red flags, but with medical red flares that emit fireworks and plumes of smoke. Still, Kelly was able to coax 4,581 passing yards and 27 TD passes from the not-so-dynamic duo of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez last season (albeit with 21 INTs). The year before, Kelly mixed up a Foles-Michael Vick cocktail (with a Matt Barkley twist) good for 4,406 passing yards and 32 TDs. So maybe, just maybe, Chip Kelly’s acolytes are on to something with their Bradford optimism.
10. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks — A year ago, Graham was the tight end fantasy owners were dying to acquire, while Rob Gronkowski was considered risky business. Now, Gronk has the passions of the fantasy community aflame, and we’re so over Graham. Consider that on the eve of the 2014 season, Graham had an ADP of 1.08 (per Fantasy Football Calculator), while Gronk’s was 3.06, four spots behind Julius Thomas. This year, as of July 14, Graham’s ADP is 3.06; Gronk’s is 2.05 (and the experts polled at FantasyPros.com collectively have Gronk at 1.07). It’s not as if Graham is coming off a poor season. He finished 2014 with 85 catches for 889 yards and 10 TDs, numbers slightly more mortal than usual but still impressive. Maybe the fantasy community is monogamous, capable of loving only one TE at a time. More likely, fantasy owners are nervous about Graham’s move from the Saints to the run-heavy Seahawks. Should we be? During his years in New Orleans, Graham had to share targets with high-volume WR Marques Colston and some very good pass-catching RBs. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson doesn’t throw to his RBs very often, and the Seattle receivers are a forgettable group led by some dolt who in the Super Bowl pantomimed dropping a deuce after his only catch of the game. It might take nothing more than a couple of Wilson-Graham preseason hookups to pump some love back into Graham’s ADP.