Rankings Tease

Jesse Pantuosco
Rotoworld

Sunburn (and I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill, garden variety sunburn either—I’m talking Kramer-roasting-on-the-roof-level annihilation) was a small price to pay for one of the most thrilling, jam-packed sports weekends I’ve ever been a part of. While slightly less ambitious than the elusive Preakness/Monster Mile double-dip I embarked on in college (which involved, among other activities I hope not to repeat, camping out overnight in the Dover International Speedway parking lot), my pilgrimage to Fenway Park and Bethpage Black was no less memorable. Between bearing witness to George Springer’s latest masterclass in clutch hitting, taking in the only hole-in-one at this year’s PGA Championship (followed in close succession by this bit of sorcery from Lucas Glover) and basking in the awkwardness of an unreciprocated high-five with Jordan Spieth (Tom Brady, the patron saint of botched high-fives, can relate), my weekend was an all-timer. 

My travels served as a welcome diversion after weeks of churning out content for the upcoming Rotoworld Draft Guide, but after wearing out my odometer in the name of sports, it’s time to get back to the grind. My initial 2019 position rankings have been signed, sealed and delivered and while I’m sure cosmetic changes (hopefully not too many) will be made before we go to print next month, most of the heavy lifting has already been done. The Draft Guide won’t hit shelves until later this summer, but luckily you caught me in a generous mood. I can’t show you all my cards, but here are a few freebies to tide you over.

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QB15 – Tom Brady, New England Patriots

2018 Rank: QB2

When I was working on my MFA in creative writing at Fairfield, I was assigned a book by literary agent Noah Lukeman called the First Five Pages. Essentially, Lukeman’s thesis is that if you ever want your book to see the light of day, you need to grab your reader within the first five pages. That’s why I’m setting the tone with this spicy meatball. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The generational talent known as Touchdown Tom checked in at No. 15 in my initial quarterback ranks behind names like Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger.

I felt no joy in my betrayal of Brady, the greatest quarterback not only of his generation but of all-time. But in football, like life, we have to face hard truths. And the truth is that Brady, despite last year’s postseason heroics (particularly in his AFC title game showdown with Chiefs gunslinger Patrick Mahomes), no longer belongs among the upper echelon of fantasy quarterbacks. 

The three-time MVP continued his winning streak against Father Time last season but not before taking a few punches. Whether it was due to a weaker-than-usual supporting cast or a conscious decision made by coaches to combat Brady’s own limitations, the Patriots leaned heavily on their ground game in 2018, logging the league’s third-most rushing attempts behind only the Ravens and Seahawks. Volume is a huge component of the fantasy calculus and Brady’s diminished workload—he averaged his fewest attempts since 2010—was certainly felt in the stat column, where he ranked just seventh in yards and 10th in passing touchdowns. The 41-year-old watched his accuracy decline as well (18th in completion percentage) and seemed to tire as the year went on, delivering a meager 16.4 fantasy points per game over his final nine contests. With Rob Gronkowski retired, Josh Gordon suspended and Demaryius Thomas a shell of his former elite self, New England’s pass-catching corps has been whittled down to Julian Edelman, unproven rookie N’Keal Harry, Dontrelle Inman, and whatever the Pats can squeeze out of receiving back James White. The Patriots’ crafty coaching staff will surely make the most of whatever hand they’re dealt, but outside of Edelman, there isn’t a game-changer in the bunch.

After dominating for longer than anyone else ever has, Brady deserves the benefit of the doubt. But as last year proved, winning and fantasy success aren’t always synonymous. It feels borderline blasphemous to say this but at a loaded fantasy position, Brady belongs in the middle of the pack.

TE8 – Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints

2018: TE18

Not that it was an especially high bar to clear, particularly after Jon Gruden threw Amari Cooper to the wolves, but Cook was far and away the Raiders’ top pass-catcher last year, leading the team in every major receiving category. A late bloomer, Cook’s long-anticipated breakout didn’t come until his age-31 season, when the former third-round pick erupted for 896 yards, fourth-most among tight ends behind only the dominant trio of George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz

Now that he’s headed to the Saints (his fourth team in five years), Cook is unlikely to see the same volume he received in Oakland, but the upgrade at quarterback from Derek Carr to future Hall of Famer Drew Brees should offset any concerns over his workload. Only two teams put up more points than New Orleans last season and if that trend continues, it stands to reason Cook will have a good chance to improve on last year’s career-high touchdown total (six). TEs coach Dan Campbell has implied Cook could be used in a way similar to how the Saints employed Jimmy Graham in his heyday. That could be an exaggeration—hyperbole, especially in the unreliable world of offseason coach-speak, tends to run rampant this time of year. But Cook still carries most of the right ingredients, or at least enough to warrant starting consideration at a weak fantasy position.    

RB8 – Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams 

2018: RB1

May is always met by groans here at Rotoworld, where the football writers and I commiserate in the shared misery of building our gigantic, exhaustively researched Draft Guide from scratch. But we’re not the only ones cramming. Just in the last week (I’m not sure if this is a humblebrag or a sincere cry for help), I’ve competed in two mock drafts for magazines that weren’t my own. I’m not sure what got into me, but in one of my mocks I made a statement by drafting Joe Mixon ninth overall. That’s not an insane reach (Mixon’s PPR ADP hovers around 14), but given the context of who was still available—first-round mainstays Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley—it’s probably one of my more reckless picks to date. 

I’ll cop to it being out-of-character and maybe in retrospect, I was being provocative just for the sake of being provocative. But was what I did really THAT crazy? Bell spent last year out of the league and reportedly ballooned to 260 pounds (35 above his listed weight) during his hiatus. Not to mention he’s still yet to show for team activities this spring and, according to reports, his new coach Adam Gase never wanted him in the first place. But at least he’s well-rested, a lock for heavy volume and could be playing with a chip on his shoulder after his ugly divorce from Pittsburgh. 

Gurley, however, might be the more worrying of the two. In the blink of an eye last season, the four-year vet went from being an untouchable supernova to C.J. Anderson’s hobbled sidekick. Coach Sean McVay insists the Rams aren’t losing sleep over Gurley’s arthritic knee, but their actions suggest otherwise. If the Rams aren’t worried about Gurley, why would they invest a third-round pick in Memphis standout Darrell Henderson? That doesn’t add up. 

There’s no question Gurley was phenomenal before his knee woes entered the equation last year—21 touchdowns in a 14-game stretch is LaDainian-esque—and having the offseason to recharge could do him a world of good. But questions surrounding Gurley’s durability and the arrival of Henderson when stirred together make for a risky fantasy cocktail. If I can help it, I won’t be sipping from that glass in 2019. 

WR20 – Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2018: WR75

It’s nice when you have talent to fall back on, but that’s just one piece of the fantasy puzzle. Volume, a product of opportunity, is equally important. Chris Godwin’s talent has never been up for debate but a crowded pass-catching corps in Tampa has kept him from reaching his ultimate fantasy potential. With DeSean Jackson returning to his roots in Philadelphia, however, the stage is finally set for Godwin’s long-awaited breakout season. 

Jackson was undoubtedly a drain on Godwin’s target share, but you could argue that the bigger threat to his workload was actually Adam Humphries, who worked as the Bucs’ primary slot man last season. Luckily for Godwin, he’s also a goner—the Clemson alum defected to Tennessee in free agency. That leaves a whopping 179 targets on the table and while Mike Evans is sure to gobble up at least some of those looks from Jameis Winston, it’s hard to imagine his workload stretching much beyond the 139 targets (12th in the NFL) he drew in 2018. The Bucs were one of the most pass-reliant teams in football last year (fourth in pass attempts) and that doesn’t figure to change much, especially after GM Jason Licht made no effort to improve the team’s muddled backfield this offseason (if you’re interested in seeing where Licht fell in RotoPat’s GM Rankings, fair warning, you’ll be scrolling quite a while). 

Godwin endured his fair share of clunkers last year (conveniently only when I rostered him on FanDuel) but balanced those struggles with star-making turns against Washington (7-103-0 on seven targets), Carolina (5-101-1 on six targets) and Atlanta (6-114-2 on nine targets). Slot receivers have long been a staple of Bruce Arians offenses—Larry Fitzgerald resurrected his career when Arians took the reins in Arizona—and Godwin could be primed for similar success as he absorbs the role vacated by Humphries. I was tempted to rank Godwin even higher than this, but in the end, I slotted the Penn State product at No. 20, a full 55 spots higher than I had him in 2018. 

QB13 – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

2018: Not Ranked

On the surface, this might strike you as an aggressive ranking for someone who’s never played an NFL down, but I’ve found that early drafters are targeting Murray near this range. Between Murray’s rushing capability and the presence of offensive mastermind Kliff Kingsbury, a long-time admirer of the Heisman Trophy winner, the 21-year-old could be the rare first-year quarterback to make an immediate fantasy impression. Even when Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson weren’t having much passing success as rookies, their rushing outputs kept them in play as usable fantasy quarterbacks and the same should be true of Murray, who compiled 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground at Oklahoma last year.

Beyond his rushing exploits, the former Sooner should also have success passing in Kingsbury’s explosive Air-Raid scheme, a strong match for Murray’s downfield prowess. And while a weak supporting cast was partially to blame for Josh Rosen’s failure last year, that shouldn’t be a major stumbling block for Murray in 2019. Arizona invested heavily at wide receiver in April’s draft, adding Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson to a unit already featuring Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk (third among rookies in receiving yards per game). David Johnson also offers considerable pass-catching ability and should be eager to prove himself after seeing his talents squandered by the last coaching regime. 

Like all rookies, Murray will undoubtedly suffer brain cramps from time to time and surely there will be an adjustment period for both he and Kingsbury as they make the leap from the college ranks to the NFL. But if Murray lives up to his monster hype, fantasy owners will be glad they got in on the ground floor.

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