Overlooked fantasy losers from major NFL offseason moves: Looks like we have to wait for Sam Darnold's breakout

Liz Loza
·7 min read

Less than two rounds into the NFL Draft and pundits web-wide were declaring individual winners and losers. By now we’ve all heard the gasps of disbelief from Packers fans who wanted more aerial weapons for Aaron Rodgers and fewer backfield competitors for Aaron Jones. We’ve also weighed in on the New vs. Old debates starring Taylor + Mack and Akers + Henderson. But there’s nuance to everything.

That said, the domino effect of free agency and the draft extends beyond thin receiving corps and crowded backfields. Plenty of other fantasy players — ones outside of “stud” status but serviceable chess pieces — are likely to face new obstacles in 2020. Below are five not-so-obvious losers of the offseason.

Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets

I stanned for Sam last year, optimistic that he would build on a freshman campaign in which he flashed plenty of potential. Between organizational discord, a touch of the City Boy Summer, and a haunting game against the Pats, however, that sophomore breakout ended before it could even begin. Heading into 2020 — and despite a reported “urgency” from Joe Douglas to win with Darnold by putting the necessary pieces around him — it’s hard to believe the Jets signal caller will have the necessary weapons at his disposal to ascend.

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Before Gang Green comes at me with the reasons why Mekhi Becton is better than Tristan Wirfs (he’s not tho), snaps for attempting to protect Darnold deserve to be sent up. Douglas has undoubtedly spent much of the offseason and the draft upgrading the team’s offensive line, trying to make good on the first half of his “protection and playmakers” promise.

It’s the emptiness of the second part that figures to keep Darnold scrambling — in a different way. As high as I am on Denzel Mims, it’s wild to grab just ONE receiver in a class so deep (especially when there are fliers to be had at/around picks 125 and 191).

As such, the team’s franchise QB will enter his third year in the league surrounded by an injury prone slot receiver, an inconsistent speedster, an aging receiving back, an unreliable tight end, and a rookie. There is so much ceiling in that group … but very little floor, which is troubling given the question marks surrounding training camp this particular summer. As such, Darnold figures to spend another season quietly envious of the systems built around/for Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson while simultaneously remaining outside of the top-20 fantasy producers at the position.

Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks

Remember the 2018 season when Penny felt like the future of the Seahawks backfield? All he had to do was leapfrog an oft-injured seventh-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State. And in Week 10 the breakout looked like a real possibility. Until, of course, Carson bounced back from his one-week absence (hip) and out-touched Penny by nearly 11 carries per contest through the end of the year.

In 2019, despite plenty of summer speculation and fantasy banter, Carson remained the team’s dedicated starter, averaging over 17 attempts per game to Penny’s 7 totes per week. Unfortunately, both backs suffered late-season injuries; another hip issue for Carson and a torn ACL for Penny. Carson managed to avoid surgery while Penny’s situation was far from “simple” and required additional clean-up work.

It is currently being reported that Penny will begin his third pro campaign on the PUP list. Add that to the fact that the team just added veteran spoiler Carlos Hyde, and Penny’s 2020 season seems dunzo. While some may view the addition of Hyde — who averaged 16 touches per game, posted nine breakaway runs and closed out his seventh year in the league as FF’s RB28 overall — as a threat to Carson’s workload, Seattle still appears to be favoring the former OK State Cowboy as their lead back. Regardless, grabbing Penny in the ninth round of fantasy drafts now feels like a wasted pick, especially with higher upside options like Cam Akers (or even QB value Baker Mayfield) available around the same spot.

Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (20)
Don't expect much from Rashaad Penny in 2020. (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have been patient with Ross. Zac Taylor entered his rookie season as Cincy’s HC vowing to provide the former first-round pick with a “fresh start.” Over the first three weeks of 2019 — with A.J. Green sidelined and Ross still healthy — Taylor made good on his promise. The speedster was on the field for an average of nearly 90 percent of the team’s snaps and drew 8.6 targets per game, posting two 100+ yard efforts and top-ten fantasy finishes. In Week 4, however, Ross broke his collarbone and all optimism seemed to evaporate.

From drafting Tee Higgins with the first pick of the second round to declining to pick up Ross’ fifth-year option, the Bengals appear to be moving on. While it’s hard to let go of the potential attached to the fastest man in the NFL, Ross simply isn’t going to see the opportunities necessary to make him fantasy relevant. He’s not even a lock for starting duties. Sure, his theoretical ceiling remains tempting (I guess?), but if you’re going to reach I’d recommend stashing a rookie like Michael Pittman Jr. (158.5) or Justin Jefferson (155.6), both of whom are being drafted later and offer more volume-based upside.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Carolina Panthers

I was a priority-seat passenger on last summer’s Samuel hype-train. The second-round draft pick had evolved his skill-set and route-running prowess, primed for a 2019 fantasy #glowup. Instead — largely due to poor QB play — Samuel converted 50.1% (WR101) of his looks and finished outside of the top-35 fantasy producers at the position.

With Cam Newton initially expected to return to Carolina, a rebound seemed imminent. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, the Panthers — fully committed to a top-down rebuild — released Newton and signed Teddy Bridgewater, whose caretaking approach doesn’t seem in line with unlocking Samuel’s ability as a deep threat. As if that weren’t enough, the speedster (4.31) who averaged 1.69 deep targets per game in 2019 (WR8) will also have to compete for downfield opportunities with Robbie Anderson (1.63 deep looks per contest, WR11 in 2019), as the team added the Jets lid-lifter during free agency.

The truthers will maintain that Samuel’s ability to work the slot (21.8% snap share in 2019), beast after the catch, and dominate as a rusher are enough to keep his fantasy stock soaring. They’re not wrong. Samuel is a bonafide playmaker who deserves to be targeted in best ball formats and will assuredly be a bag-bringer in DFS. But will that production remain consistent? I doubt it. Not when additionally contending for looks with CMS and Ian Thomas. And especially not over the first month of the season as new offensive wrinkles (and personalities) are ironed out.

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Ultimately, Samuel is worth a buy in the double-digit rounds of 12-team exercises. Just be prepared to stash for four to six weeks … or let someone else draft him and then scoop him up after their patience has worn thin and Samuel inevitably lands on the waiver wire.

Austin Hooper, TE, Cleveland Browns

Hooper has been a top-six producer for two consecutive campaigns. He put together a career effort in 2019, managing a 75-787-6 stat line. Showing athleticism after the catch (306 yards, TE6) and excelling in contested situations (47.1%, TE2) the Stanford product proved to be a key part of Dirk Koetter’s position-friendly scheme. No longer a part of Atlanta’s high-octane offense, however, questions about Hooper’s FF market value are being raised.

Facing the obstacles of an abbreviated offseason and struggling for looks with a crowded group of pass-catchers, Hooper isn’t likely to average the same 7.5 targets per game he did in 2019. Additionally working against Hooper is the Browns’ difficult schedule versus the tight end, which further lowers his potential ceiling. Rather than anticipating a third season of fantasy studliness from Hooper, I’d advise drafting one of his teammates (either OBJ or Landry) around the same spot and waiting until the double-digit rounds to nab a better TE value like breakout candidate and offseason winner, Mike Gesicki.

Which overlooked offseason losers do you think will end up being major fantasy busts? Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF.

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