2019 slow starts: JuJu Smith-Schuster headlines list of players set to disappoint early

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Not everyone begins the NFL regular season in the same place they finish it. Studs stumble. Rookies emerge. And fantasy players try to ride the ups and downs. Below are six guys (three veterans and three rookies) in a position to disappoint at the start of 2019.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

This is less about strength of schedule and more about the concept of evolution. The Steelers are a team in transition, and working out the kinks will take time. As high as I am on JuJu’s talent, the truth is he’ll be taking on a whole new role as the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver ... and that’s no small task.

In fact, Keenan Allen recently described the leap (and what it would mean for JuJu) in an interview on UNDISPUTED. The Chargers WR said he believed that JuJu’s transition was going to be “life changing.” He explained, “It’s gonna be hard to sleep at night trying to find ways to get open. Different routes, different coverages you’ve got to look at. Double teams, double pressures, just everything, man. The whole game changes.”

The #ReceptionPerception data is clear. Even with Donte Moncrief expected to work the perimeter in Pittsburgh, JuJu will have to completely retool his game. Whether the Steelers decide to move him to the outside or to keep him in the slot, the talent dip from Antonio Brown to Moncrief isn’t going to allow Smith-Schuster to get open as easily as he has in the past. Admittedly, the amount of looks directed the former Trojan’s way may make all this moot by the season’s end, but I think it’s reasonable to expect some inefficiency throughout September.

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Heading into 2018, I was high on Mixon. His talent was undeniable. Plus, with A.J. Green available to stretch the field, it felt like he’d have just enough room to produce. And he did, posting 4.8 YPC against base front defenses while running behind a bottom-ten ranked run-blocking unit.

Interestingly, however, Mixon faced seven or fewer defenders in the box for nearly 85 percent of his carries. For the other 15 percent of his rushing attempts - when he opposed stacked fronts - Mixon’s efficiency plummeted, as he averaged just 2.5 YPC. With A.J. Green rehabbing his ankle there’s a strong likelihood that Mixon is going to contend with eight defenders on the regular, which does not bode well for his yardage potential.

Also, as bad as Cincy’s o-line was last season… it’s even worse this year. From Clint Boling’s retirement to Jonah Williams’ shoulder injury to Alex Richmond’s suspension, the Oklahoma product will be hard-pressed to find open lanes. Throw in the fact that he opens the season facing three formidable run defenses in his first four games (SEA, BUF, PIT) a gutting September appears well within the back’s range of probable outcomes.

Fantasy expectations should be dialed back for Kyler Murray in his first month of NFL action. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Fantasy expectations should be dialed back for Kyler Murray in his first month of NFL action. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals

This isn’t about Murray’s preseason struggles. I think we can all agree that Kliff & Co aren’t rolling out the entirety of the New Era Cardinals’ offense before Week 1. And, sure, there’s a likelihood that Murray could take the league by storm similarly to the way RG3 did at the top of his career. But the two comps aren’t exactly congruent. Forgive me for not immediately assuming that a rookie head coach can effectively install a spread scheme on steroids while utilizing a talent-deficient roster that includes a sub-par run defense that will embolden opposing teams to control the clock.

Furthermore, the Cardinals’ opening schedule is not one that will allow Arizona’s offense many opportunities. Facing DET, BAL, CAR, and SEA, Murray will be fighting to touch the ball against four solid defenses fixated on playing keep-away. You sensing a theme? Beyond that, he’ll additionally be scrambling (which he’s admittedly fantastic at) behind an offensive line that, despite improvements, PFF still rated as a bottom-three unit heading into 2019.

Again, I am excited to watch Murray grow into his own and reach what I believe is an awesomely high ceiling. I just don’t think he’s a consistent top-10 fantasy producer over the first month of the season. Given the depth of the position and Murray’s lack of floor, I’d rather focus my fake football energy elsewhere (like Carson Wentz in the seventh or Cam Newton in the eighth round).

Robby Anderson, WR, New York Jets

When examining the Jets’ offense, Anderson stands out as the one thing that is not like the others. From a fantasy perspective, the most alluring piece of his game is his ability to high-point the ball and win in the red area of the field. The fact that Chris Herndon is suspended for the first month of the season should certainly help Anderson’s ability to draw high-value targets... but let’s not forget about Sam Darnold’s other options.

Quincy Enunwa (who was out down the stretch when Anderson and Darnold starting cooking) has looked good in camp and is expected to start the season at full health. In fact, Adam Gase talked about using the tweener more creatively, which could eat into Anderson’s volume. Additionally, Le’Veon Bell figures to receive some solid exposure to the goal line, so that’s not great. Overall, however, it’s the wideout’s strength of schedule that has me the most nervous. Facing three top-ten ranked secondaries (BUF, CLE, NE) before the team’s Week 4 bye could lead to some disappointing fantasy finishes. Overall, I’m still bullish on Anderson (WR26), but would encourage FF managers to brace for a rocky September.

Justice Hill, RB, Baltimore Ravens

Despite adding Mark Ingram in free agency, the Ravens drafted the explosive Hill in the fourth round. The fastest rookie RB at the combine (4.40), Hill scored an impressive 31 TDs over 36 games while at Oklahoma State. A player with good vision who gets upfield fast, he’s one of the few backs that can make a living as a consistent outside runner. He’s also a solid pass-catcher, hauling in 49 balls over a three-year college career.

While Ingram is the undisputed RB1, there has been plenty of buzz about Hill working as the team’s change-of-pace option. An offense that chose to rush the ball nearly 50 percent of the time in 2018, Baltimore is projected to be the most run-heavy squad in 2019. All of this bodes well for Hill… but not immediately.

Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards are still on the team’s roster. Plus, Ingram can also catch the ball with alacrity, so he may not always come off the field on passing downs. Still, talent is a tie-breaker and the position is brutal. It may not happen immediately, but Hill will eventually find his way to meaningful snaps. I fully expect him to turn into a PPR monster by November.

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions

This is actually a positive take. I know the trope: Rookie tight ends can’t produce in their first year. Obviously. But Hock isn’t just any rookie tight end. Selected by the Lions with the eighth overall pick, the former Hawkeye was thought by many to be the most pro-ready player in the entire 2019 draft class. A modern-day Y with advanced blocking AND receiving technique, he figures to be on the field A LOT, especially in an offense interested in running two-tight end sets. All those reps could lead to a mid-late season emergence that wows. He’s my TE18 and worth consideration in the 14th round of twelve-team exercises.

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