Outside of the Antonio Brown saga and running back holdouts, the 2019 preseason seemed fairly quiet. No massive injuries, no major news. That changed Saturday night. Andrew Luck, starting quarterback for the Colts and former No. 1 overall pick, retired from the NFL less than a month before his 30th birthday.
Luck dealt with some type of calf/ankle/bone issues since late May. The latest injury on a long list for playing just six seasons in the NFL. It was a constant story, leading to consistent questioning of the head coach, general manager and even team owner. This resulted in mixed messages and news. Then Saturday struck. Now, we have our answer, as Luck explained during his retirement announcement that he played through pain once and “vowed” to himself he would never do it again. It is not difficult to interpret relief from his words and expression.
This is one of the biggest shocks in the history of professional football.
So where do we, the fantasy players, go from here? In short, every Colt gets bumped down.
T.Y. Hilton is currently the WR12 in drafts, around pick 30 overall. That is on the heels of a 120 target season in Luck’s return to the field, where Hilton hauled in 76 passes for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns. The two were dynamite together, as Luck could always unlock Hilton’s vertical prowess. Hilton has played an entire season with Jacoby Brissett as recently as 2017, and he caught 57 of 109 targets for 966 yards and four touchdowns. The lowest touchdown total of his career, and lowest receptions and yardage since his rookie season. Right now, Hilton is going before a tier of Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, Julian Edelman and others. At the very least, I would drop him down behind Tyler Lockett, meaning Hilton shifts from WR13 to WR21.
There is one major change from the 2017 season to the 2019 season, and that is Frank Reich. The Colts ran the third most offensive plays in 2018, including the fourth most drop backs and were among the middle of the pack in terms of rushing attempts. The Colts went from boasting one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL to possibly the best. And Luck took the fewest sacks (18) of his career. Still, even with Reich working his magic as a playcaller, Brissett is not Luck.
We established the hit primary target T.Y. Hilton might take, but the drop could be even more significant for the secondary pass catchers. Eric Ebron hauled in a shocking 14 touchdowns in 2018. He accumulated 12 total touchdowns in his previous four seasons. He was already the most obvious regression candidate in fantasy football, and his current draft slot of TE8 should drop even further, down beyond Vance McDonald and Austin Hooper, closer to TE11. It does help that with Brissett in charge in 2017, tight end Jack Doyle saw the second-most targets on the team with 108, hauling in 80 catches. Perhaps Ebron sees the majority of that, if that figure is repeatable.
Luck was likely to support at least one other pass catcher. Maybe even more. And new additions Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell are being drafted as if they would have a fantasy-relevant role in the passing game. Funchess, with a current ADP of WR56, is being selected ahead of Jamison Crowder and Adam Humphries. Campbell, at WR67, is even more surprising given he missed so much of the preseason. He should now be selected after Trey Quinn, Rashard Higgins, Cole Beasley and other similar names. Maybe the Brissett and Reich combo surprises us. But as we head into this week of drafts and the fantasy season, I want to invest in more certainties. A situation that is bankable.
That was a lot on the passing game, but Luck’s retirement will also greatly impact running back production. Back in 2017 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, the 4-12 Colts gave 34-year-old Frank Gore 261 carries … for a whopping 961 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 29 receptions. A then-rookie Marlon Mack also accounted for 93 carries, over 350 rushing yards, 21 receptions and four total touchdowns. It cannot be understated how different the 2019 Colts’ offensive line is compared to the 2017 iteration, as creating yards before contact for backs is imperative. The Colts are more equipped to do that this season, but almost certainly will face fewer positive, and even neutral, game script situations. In 2018, the Colts led for 37% of their offensive plays. In 2017, that number was 30%.
Marlon Mack is currently drafted as the RB18, around the 35th overall pick. He’s at the end of this interesting tier of Damien Williams, Aaron Jones and Devonta Freeman. All four have feature back potential, and now Mack certainly sits in the worst offense of the four. The question is if names like Derrick Henry, Chris Carson or Mark Ingram should now be selected over him. Mack averaged 19 touches in wins last season, 11 touches in losses. The inverse is true for Nyheim Hines, the current RB45, securing 7.3 touches in wins compared to 12.5 in losses. Negative game script helps Hines, specifically in the receiving game, and it is fair to assume the Colts see more of that in 2019.
As for the quarterback, it should go without saying that Brissett is likely not draftable in standard leagues. The position is just so deep this year. But in superflex leagues, I would place him around Nick Foles, in the QB28 range.
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Texans Fear Lamar Miller Suffered A Torn ACL
A quick note on Lamar Miller, who the Texans fear suffered a torn ACL early in Saturday’s preseason game against the Cowboys. Over the last three seasons with the Texans, Miller received a ridiculous amount of volume. 268 carries in 2016, 238 carries in 2017 and 210 carries in 2018. The collective fantasy football world will freak out about Duke Johnson, who currently is drafted as the RB39. If I had to guess, he will vault up in the RB25 to RB30 range.
The Texans obviously have some belief in Johnson, they just traded a 2020 fourth-round pick for that can turn into a third-round selection if the runner is active for 10 games. But Duke has not seen a feature back workload since high school, boasting carry totals of 104, 73, 82 and 40 in four NFL seasons. In fact, he has a total of 299 carries and 235 receptions in that span of time. If healthy, Johnson certainly will eclipse that previous high of 104 carries … but how much higher will it get to? 200? I’d expect another back with experience to be brought in after roster cuts. If your draft is soon, operate as if Johnson belongs on the fringe of the David Montgomery, Sony Michel, Tevin Coleman tier. In fact, that is a few steps up from where Lamar Miller was being drafted.