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Hype train or smoke screen: Abdullah, Gordon, Eifert

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We all know that the long months of the offseason can cause fantasy owners to artificially build up the stock of players' potential. These situations only get crazier the closer we get to the season. Sometimes these boosts are hype trains that fantasy owners should gleefully board on the way to a league-winning investment in a player. Other times, the buildup is just a smoke screen caused by overblown praise from the team, or a misdiagnosis of the player or their situation. In this edition, we'll look at two rookie running backs and a young tight end receiving glowing praise.

Update: this was published before Thursday night's slate of preseason games. In two of those games, we saw the rookie running backs take the field. Judge for yourself whether some of the concepts outlined in this post came to fruition, or not.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions

 

No one is getting training camp love this week like Ameer Abdullah. The rookie running back was praised, and described as having "uncanny vision [that] allows him to somehow see holes before they open" and "catches passes better than most receivers". Even more effusively, "slippery to the touch" was thrown around by Dave Birkett of The Detroit Free Press. It was really the Lions own defensive coordinator who really said it best, "we can't even tackle that guy. We can't even touch him. He's like grasping at air."

It sounds like while 22-year old running back is frustrating the team's defense in training camp, they envision him doing that to other teams when the games get going. Flip on a college game of Ameer Abdullah's and it's easy to see why Detroit is so excited about him. Abdullah averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored 39 rushing touchdowns over four years at Nebraska. His best season was his final one, where he scored 22 times and averaged 12.2 yards-per-reception.

Athletically, Abdullah is quite impressive. Via the SPARQ system for athletic measurable scoring, Abdullah tested as the most athletic running back from the 2015 draft. Those who cite his 4.55 40-yard dash time as a concern are simply missing the big picture of which tests are important for the running back position. If a running back is ever in the position to run 40-yards during an actual game, there probably won't be any defenders near them, anyways. Short area explosion is much more vital than long-speed for a running back, and the vertical jump and three-cone drill are crucial for measuring that ability. Abdullah was the top performing running back in both events.

There's been some talk that Abdullah will play a "Reggie Bush role" in the Lions offense. While that will lead to many reception opportunities for the rookie back, he projects as a better inside runner than Bush ever was in his NFL career. This is dues to his ability to cycle through moves and break multiple tackles, as evidenced in the below Vine.

While that play was on a reception, he can perform in the same manner on a between the tackles run. He is a very instinctual runner. Matt Waldman notes that Adbullah does some of the nuanced aspects of the position in similar fashion to Jamaal Charles, which makes him "a successful interior runner despite his small stature for a feature back."

With Joique Bell still yet to practice this offseason, and Abdullah impressing, the drum beat is already going for the rookie to be the Lions starter. In line for such a big role, the second rounder could finish the year as the top scoring rookie back in fantasy.

When doubted on his ability to be an every down contributor, Abdullah confidently responded "For those who say that, I ask them to turn on my film." Fantasy owners should have the same confidence. When you take Abdullah in a draft, you'll be receiving a big reward. Even as his ADP continues to rise, jump on this hype train before you're left behind at the station.

Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers

 

As soon as the rookie out of Wisconsin was selected by the Chargers in the first round, it was widely assumed Melvin Gordon would be a fantasy star in his first year. The team has a good offense, run by a great quarterback and had a massive hole at the running back position.

During OTAs, the reports coming out of San Diego were glowing. His work ethic was frequently noted, and observers noted he was every bit "as good as advertised." Early fantasy drafters responded with Gordon landing in the third to fourth round. However, when the pads came on in training camp, the tune began to change. Michael Gelkin of "The San Diego Union-Tribune" noted Gordon is a "patient runner, more patient than most rookies and almost too patient at times." Of the same reporting outfit, Kevin Ace proclaimed "it's clear ... he's not playing three downs without much improvement blocking." Indecisiveness and pass protection worries were both concerns coming out of college. For now at least, it appears that those issues may manifest themselves in his rookie year.

Throughout the offseason, Gordon's third to early-fourth round asking price has held pretty firm. Our own Michael Fabiano slotted him in at 4.03 in his latest one-man mock draft. With some realism seeping into Gordon's rookie year projections, it's fair to wonder whether he pays off that value.

To look for a realistic comparison, let's examine Chris Johnson's 2008 rookie season. Like Gordon, Johnson was a talented runner, but came with some questions in his game. Nevertheless, the 24th overall pick was given a heavy workload and carried the ball 251 times as a rookie. Those are fair numbers to expect for Gordon. Johnson went on to finish as the 11th highest scoring back in standard fantasy leagues that season, mostly on the back of his nine rushing touchdowns. However, what elevated Johnson's scoring the most was the 62 targets the team fed him, leading to 260 more yards and another score. Without those extra points, he'd fall into the mid-teens among running back scorers. Even with a 250-plus carry load, Melvin Gordon will need to approach Johnson's touchdown rate, because he will not see near the same passing game volume.

Kevin Acee indicated Gordon has yet to show he's ready for passing downs, and he only caught 22 passes in four total seasons at Wisconsin. This conundrum is no problem for San Diego, as they already have that player in Danny Woodhead.

The Chargers are thrilled to have Woodhead back in the fold. According to NFL Media's Matt Clarida, the Chargers used the veteran "almost exclusively" in shotgun sets, and "Rivers looked Woodhead's way more than he did any other back or receiver" in training camp. This player was a top-13 PPR running back in 2013, when he caught 76 balls. You can essentially pencil him in for that season once again in 2015. Anyone who is not projecting a big role for Woodhead in the Chargers offense is ignoring Philip Rivers' history, and is sorely mistaken.

With Gordon not ready for third-down duties, and Woodhead ready to resume his role, the rookie running back has a tangible capped ceiling in fantasy football. In last week's column, we looked at why taking two-down running backs on bad teams is a bad bet in examining the case of Latavius Murray. Of course, the Chargers are a far superior team to the Raiders, so Gordon's situation is not quite as drastic as Murray's. However, without the added benefit of passing game work, Gordon will be heavily reliant on rushing touchdowns to surpass his ADP.

Still the first rookie running back off the board, Melvin Gordon's hype train is a tricky one. He is on a good enough team to justify his asking price, but some of his individual struggles and lack of passing game work are going to cap his season long ceiling. He does not possess the upside some would lead you to believe he has.

Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals

 

Fantasy gamers have been waiting for the Tyler Eifert breakout ever since the Bengals made him the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. With Jermaine Gresham gone to Arizona, and Eifert back from an elbow injury, it appears the time is now.

Every game, all season

The now third-year tight end is running with the opportunity, with reports from camp calling him "uncoverable." Given his size and athleticism, that is not surprising. Eifert stands at 6-foot-6 and is a lean 250 pounds. He's the classic move tight end, and even sports the agility (6.92 three-cone drill) to form a lethal combination with his height. In college, teams often had to line their best cornerback across from Eifert to try and stop him, as Alabama famously did with Dee Milliner in their BCS National Championship faceoff.

Having a security blanket in the short to intermediate area of the field will be vital for Andy Dalton. The Bengals quarterback has erratic deep accuracy, and is at his most proficient throwing to the middle and right side of the field. In his eight snaps before injury last year, Eifert received three targets from Andy Dalton. Gresham went on to own a 16 percent target share of the team's offense. Gresham did not do much with those chances, as he only averaged 7.4 yards-per-catch. Expect Eifert to shine a little more with those opportunities.

Tight ends take some time to breakout in the NFL, unlike their wide receiver counterparts as of late. In order to locate a sleeper tight end, you want to look for players who have a few years' experience, and play in offenses where they should see plenty of targets. Dalton is no world-beater at quarterback, but he proved in 2013 he can effectively distribute the ball to his weapons. Eifert is going to be the beneficiary of that this season, and should rise to be the Bengals No. 2 target behind A.J. Green.

Last season, we saw Travis Kelce rise from the ranks of the 13th round to be the nint-highest scoring fantasy tight end, and a celebrated player by many. If any player has a chance to do that this year, it's Eifert. His current ADP on NFL.com has him in Round 15. That is certifiably insane. Eifert has a very real chance to finish as a top-10 scorer if he stays healthy.

If you are not targeting one of the top few tight ends, you're taking a late rounder with the intention to stream, but you are hoping he turns into an every week starter. That upside player this year is Tyler Eifert. Jump aboard this hype train while the tickets are still cheap.


Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB. He's looking forward to tonight's preseason games, where he will have Josh Lenz in a DFS lineup. No, seriously.

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