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Fantasy football drumbeats notebook 1.0
The NFL training camp and preseason portion of the year is long and full of terrors. Player value is laid set as we head into August fantasy drafts but often, nothing is as it seems.
Hype trains frequently derail. Smokescreens are given off by wayward coaches unconcerned with your fake football draft. Yet, this is where we glean valuable insights that alter the course of the fantasy football season. This time of year matters. Anyone who argues is a fool.
No, you don’t vault a player up your rankings or drafting a sleeper based on one Rotoworld blurb. During this time of year, we’re collecting information into a wider portfolio based on what we’ve heard throughout the offseason. My longtime mentors at Footballguys, the first major fantasy outlet that gave me a chance as an analyst, Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom describe it as “listening for the drumbeat.” It’s perfect.
One positive note exuded by a coach isn’t enough to buy into a breakout or rebound season. What we want to hear is a steady crescendo of positivity that begins in the spring with strong OTA showings, gets louder in training camp as the player runs with the first team and then becomes a song of reality as he puts it all into action during the preseason.
Here in this weekly notebook, we’ll check in on the drumbeats building or fading for a handful of players the fantasy community is excited about. These players will be ones with a shot to shoot up draft boards, but ones we’ll need to track closely. For this first edition, here are five players who my ears are pinned toward as training camps open.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Unlike other players on this list, Donte Moncrief has had his time in the sun. The frequent subject of offseason hype during his time with the Indianapolis Colts, the fantasy world is familiar with Moncrief.
The reality is that Moncrief never fulfilled the hopes that so many had for him during his days with the Colts. He never averaged more than 46 yards per game in a season and topped 50 catches just once. Even now, you can still make a legitimate case some of it was out of his control. Opportunity came his way in 2016 and 2017 after he outplayed Andre Johnson in a part-time role during the 2015 season. A mix of his own injuries and the loss of Andrew Luck didn’t allow him a chance at that breakout season, even if he held a strong red-zone role in 2016 (converting all six of his targets inside the 10-yard line into scores). He spent last season lost in the muck of Jacksonville’s broken passing offense.
Donte Moncrief could just be a tale of unfulfilled potential, a book we can all leave on the shelf. However, his fresh start in Pittsburgh is already beginning to lay the groundwork to test that theory.
With the departure of Antonio Brown, the Steelers don’t just have a bevy of volume available (38 percent of the team’s 2018 air yards), they’re in desperate need of an outside receiver to step up. Some would hope that player to be second-year receiver James Washington. It still may be, but Moncrief, the veteran receiver on a two-year deal, has been the one with the shine during minicamps.
Mark Kabloy of The Athletic called Moncrief the “slamdunk No. 2 receiver” behind JuJu Smith Schuster. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger praised his work ethic and knowledge of the offense and wide receivers’ coach Daryl Drake echoed the sentiment.
What we need to see:
The faint drumbeat is clearly building for Moncrief in Pittsburgh’s potentially potent offense. He makes perfect sense as a late-round dart throw in best ball right now on that alone. We all know he’s tough to trust for anything more than that, of course. We need to continue tracking this situation and have more steady positivity leak from Steelers camp. Seeing him run out with the first team in preseason action over James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson will cement his case.
Royce Freeman, RB, Denver Broncos
Welcome back, folks. It’s the offseason and it’s time to do this again.
Remember how excited the vast majority of the fantasy world became about Royce Freeman toward the end of the 2018 preseason? We promise we aren’t going that high again. However, it is time to consider the stock of this player once more.
With 2018 rookie revelation Phillip Lindsay sidelined for the entirety of the offseason with a wrist injury he sustained late last year, Freeman took advantage of chances all summer to shine in front of the new staff. By all accounts, he grabbed the new brass’ attention.
Make no mistake, Freeman didn’t flop in his rookie year because he isn’t a talented player. He showed off his ability in spurts but was simply outplayed by another young back while his own injuries hampered him early. The 2018 Broncos weren’t nearly a prolific enough offense to support multiple productive runners.
Freeman is a gifted back, with enviable speed for his size that once saw him thrive in a zone-based system, not unlike the one now installed in Denver. It’s possible Freeman produces usable numbers in fantasy as a committee back, or more, for the Broncos in his sophomore season.
What we need to see:
The Denver Post called the starting tailback gig one of the top position battles to watch in Broncos training camp. That’s a sizable estimation after Freeman did well in his opportunities during the OTA portion of the offseason proceedings. He needs to make this a reality all throughout camp and into preseason if he is to be trusted as a usable asset.
It’s worth noting that Phillip Lindsay got his first work of the offseason at the start of camp and ran as the first-team back. If Freeman doesn’t give Lindsay any further push for the top spot on the depth chart this offseason, be quick to move on. This would make Freeman merely an injury upside stash.
For now, Freeman is a fine pick in the eighth to 10th round range of early best ball drafts. It’s a murky area of the position and Freeman at least has a shot to build momentum, if things continue to fall into place.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, Green Bay Packers
Midway through the 2018 season, it looked like Marquez Valdes-Scantling was on the come up as a possible breakout rookie receiver. The 6-foot-4 athletic wideout was capitalizing on opportunities behind Davante Adams in the Packers receiver corps, filling a role desperately needed in the offense.
It all fell apart quickly as Valdes-Scantling disappeared down the stretch. He went five straight games with fewer than 20 receiving yards before tallying 114 on eight catches in the final two weeks of the regular season. Rumors flowed through the offseason that Valdes-Scantling had drawn the legendary ire of Aaron Rodgers. He wouldn’t be the first to receive the rumored freezeout treatment from the All-Pro passer.
Winds of change are here. As we head into training camp, things are once again looking up for MVS. Rodgers broke out of character and said the sophomore receiver was having a fantastic spring. He drew praise for how quickly he picked up Matt LaFleur’s newly installed offense. ESPN's Rob Demovsky opined that it was Valdes-Scantling and not Geronimo Allison who was "probably is the No. 2 receiver" behind Adams.
Rodgers is one of the best pure passers the game has ever known. Adams is a truly elite receiver. Beyond them, the door is wide open for someone to pick up the rest of the load in the Green Bay aerial assault. If Valdes-Scantling is that player, he will be a big-time late-round value.
What we need to see:
Valdes-Scantling must continue to put a hold on the No. 2 receiver job. As camp opens, you want to not just read beat writers gush over his highlight catches in practices. We need to hear he’s running as the starter opposite Adams in almost all formations.
The Packers No. 2 receiver gig is another drumbeat where we need to see a crescendo in preseason. Valdes-Scantling would cement his status as a breakout player by running all his routes with Rodgers in exhibitions. A few strong plays also wouldn’t hurt.
Ronald Jones, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
An even bigger flop than Royce Freeman, it’s hard to have a worse NFL debut than Ronald Jones’ rookie season. The USC product totaled a measly 44 rushing yards at a putrid 1.9 yards per carry clip. In a backfield with nary an established name, Jones never made even so much as a push for work.
Much of this offseason, following the addition of a new coaching staff led by Bruce Arians, has provided much more optimism for Jones. General manager Jason Licht noted the second-year back was the player who impressed the new coaches the most. Jameis Winston told the media Jones was “showing out” in spring practices. He even hit running back offseason Yahtzee following storylines about his 13-pound muscle-based weight-gain while drawing “rave” reviews from the new staff.
Jones has nowhere to go but up. He’s no lock to accomplish that feat but we’re hearing the faint drumbeats building one would want around a once disappointing rookie back. The fantasy world expects the Bucs offense to at least provide some beefy yardage totals. Their starting running back will matter in some capacity.
What we need to see:
Reliable beat writer Greg Auman still believes it’s “certainly likely” that Peyton Barber out-rushes Jones in 2019. If we are to trust Jones as any sort of reliable fantasy pick, he must win this job outright. Barber must be dispensed.
If we don’t hear that Jones is dominating first-team reps and we see him sputter once again in the preseason, it’s over. Be quick to forget all this spring positivity...unless he gives us a reason not to let it go.
Darrell Henderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams
The Todd Gurley knee saga has been a tedious one to follow dating back to last winter. The Rams have been reticent to confirm or deny anything surrounding Gurley’s status.
The NFL world took it as a big signal when the Rams used a third-round selection to acquire the services of the ultra explosive Darrell Henderson. The Memphis running back averaged nearly nine yards per carry in each of his last two college seasons. The thought of him running through a wide-open Los Angeles offense rightly got the fantasy world buzzing.
General manager Les Snead stoked the hype flames by saying Henderson could bring an Alvin Kamara "element” to the Rams offense in a clip from their draft room. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport all but confirmed the Los Angeles brass are ready to admit that Gurley will no longer be a bell-cow back. The opening for a player like Henderson is there. Weekly touches could be on the table and much more would come if Gurley went down for a stretch.
What we need to see
Fantasy drafters haven’t waited to see a damn thing. Henderson’s ADP has already sky-rocketed to the mid-rounds, finding his way into the fifth and sixth-rounds at some outlets. It’s aggressive because we have the faintest of drumbeats about the player alone right now.
The music is loud and somber surrounding Gurley. It looks like his time as an elite workhorse back is already over. Opportunity should exist behind him in 2019 and that cup would runneth over if his knee issues return in full-force.
The question is if the player to benefit is indeed Henderson. A third-round investment is something but it’s just one piece. The positivity surrounding this player must carry over into training camp. He needs to clearly own the No. 2 gig over veteran Malcolm Brown. Busting off a few nice runs with the first team in preseason would be a big win. Otherwise, the quieting drumbeat will haunt those best ball drafters who already placed their chips in his corner.