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. The key to deciphering each individual case is to follow a steady drumbeat building tempo throughout the offseason from OTAs, into training camp and peaking in the preseason. In this edition, we'll look at two second-year receivers with newfound opportunity and a rookie who fell into a perfect situation.
The Steelers should have the NFL's most dynamic and unstoppable offensive attack. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, they just cannot seem to get their dynamic foursome of weapons on the field at the same time. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were all on the field together for a mere 16 snaps a season ago.
Bryant owned a 21 percent share of the team targets after he re-joined the team in Week 6 after a different four-game suspension and subsequent one-game injury. Analytics expert Warren Sharp notes in his 2016 season preview, "the Steelers were the most pass-happy team in the NFL if you exclude games started by (Mike) Vick and (Landry) Jones ... they were still slightly more pass-happy than average in 2014 as well." Whoever ends up absorbing the majority of Bryant's vacated targets will matter in fantasy football.
The most logical player to assume Bryant's target share is fourth-year receiver Markus Wheaton. He currently goes off the board as the WR41 in the ninth-round on Fantasy Football Calculator. You can make the case that he's a good value there in this offense, but Wheaton utterly disappointed when asked to be the No. 2 last year during Bryant's suspension.
Wheaton averaged just 1.8 receptions and 45.6 yards per game in the first five games without Bryant. 31.6 percent of his yardage game on a fluky long touchdown from Michael Vick against the Chargers (his lone catch of the game). Wheaton showed better as the third receiver for the team. After a stretch of dreadful production Wheaton averaged 79.3 yards and scored four times during the last six games of 2015.
Wheaton doesn't get a tangible statistical bump without Bryant in the lineup, lending credence to the idea he's best suited to do battle with No. 3 cornerbacks:
It feels as if the book is out on Wheaton now at this point in his career, who likely lacks the sort of upside you're looking for in a late round stab. So, we look a little further down the depth chart for potential sleeper appeal in this offense.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley pushed the spotlight on second-year wideout Sammie Coatessaying he had a "tremendous offseason." Long-time beat writer Ed Bouchette asserted that second-year receiver Sammie Coates will be the player who benefitted most from Bryant's absence, has a real chance to be the No. 2 and reported he was told multiple times Coates "worked out like crazy" to get into great shape. From the looks of early practices, Coates reportedly carried over that positive momentum into some strong showings.
It's interesting that apparently conditioning was Coates' biggest hurdle as a rookie, because his physical build and athleticism were his top selling-points as a prospect. Coates came to the NFL sporting a rocked-up 6'1, 212-pound frame and proceeded to crush the drills. After ripping off a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, Coates posted elite scores in the broad jump (96th percentile), vertical (95th) and bench press (96th). He's as much an athletic specimen as any receiver that's entered the NFL in the last few seasons.
Some of that athletic ability earns Coates easy comparison to Martavis Bryant, the player he'll attempt to replace in Pittsburgh. However, Coates' biggest weakness coming out of Auburn was his ability to track the football over his head, something Bryant did on a regular basis on deep passes through two years as a pro. I put Coates through a small sample Reception Perception study before he was drafted in 2015 and the results were quite poor. Bryant can separate at will and is one of the more fluid athletes at the position across the NFL. As a collegiate, Coates was a bit more stiff coming in and out of breaks.
I'm far from sold on Coates' ability to correct his flaws and long-term viability as a regular starting receiver, but I think the wise move is to ignore them provided his price stays as low as it is right now. Coates currently comes with a 13th round ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator. That asking price is more than fair given his tangible measured athleticism and the wealth of positive buzz out of Steelers camp. Even if he just stays within the double-digit rounds, I'm in on Coates for redraft this year.
The Steelers offense won't be as proficient without Martavis Bryant (they average a touchdown less per game when he sits) and Coates doesn't have the individual ceiling of his predecessor. However, we still want to mine for potential sleepers from these pass-happy offenses run by high-end quarterbacks. Right now, Sammie Coates fits the bill to a tee and comes at a great value. It would be foolish to ignore the clear drumbeat building for Coates.
Marques Colston held down the role of the Saints big possession receiver for the entirety of his 10-year career and racked up over 1,000 targets. New Orleans made a direct move to replace Colston after releasing him earlier in the offseason by taking Ohio State Michael Thomas in the second-round of the NFL Draft.
The early reports out of Saints mini-camp were largely positive. Drew Brees, never one shy away from showering young players with praise, took note of Thomas' ability to adjust mid-route and never repeat the same mistake. He carried that positivity over into camp where teammates raved over a one-handed catch and Rod Walker of the New Orleans Advocate dubbed him "the best player in (Saints) camp."
Praising his ability to win the ball in traffic, Walker wrote of Thomas, "Even when he is covered, he has found ways to come up with a reception. He has easily been the best player in camp so far."
Thomas stands out in a receiving corps which features Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead as the starting receivers at under 6-foot-0. The Ohio State product checks in at 6-foot-3 and over 210 pounds. He offers a skill set that neither of the two receivers ahead of him do, which will help him get on the field early. Thomas should immediately slide into Colston's vacated position as the big slot receiver. He will be a mismatch for small cornerbacks in contested situations and comes with more than enough quickness to create requisite separation.
Running routes from the slot won't be the only spot where Thomas' size comes in handy. Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate theorized that Thomas could serve "as security inside" inside the 10-yard line. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead combined for just two of Brees' 10 touchdowns thrown inside the 10-yard line, which was his lowest total of the last five seasons. With his size and ball skills, Thomas could make a killing in the red zone as soon as this year.
Reception Perception is a methodology I created to evaluate the wide receiver positon that measures how often they get open on each route, against specific forms of coverages and more. Michael Thomas posted an above average success rate versus coverage score when facing man and press coverage, with 69.4 percent and 66.7 percent, respectively. His success rate versus zone coverage of 82.8 percent was the second highest figure among the prospects charted by Reception Perception. As the big slot receiver in New Orleans, he'll have to sift through plenty of zones in the middle of the field. He also came in third in multiple tackles broken rate (13.3) in the open field among the charted prospects, finishing behind only Corey Coleman and Laquon Treadwell.
Prior to the NFL Draft, I noted that due to his style of nuanced and detailed route-running, Michael Thomas' fantasy success would hinge on his landing spot. I personally shy away from player comparisons because I'm bad at them, but one of the best made this draft season was Rumford Johnny aligningMichael Thomas with Michael Crabtree. The veteran receiver didn't fit well with Kapernick but excelled with a more timing-based passer last year in Oakland. Luckily, for Thomas he landed in a dreamlike spot for his abilities. Everything that he does well fits perfectly with that Colston role in New Orleans.
Michael Thomas currently goes off the board in the mid-13th round of fantasy drafts and offers plenty of upside in that range. There are plenty of mouths to feed in New Orleans and Thomas' role might directly overlap with Coby Fleener's. There's a chance the two will cannibalize each other running middle of the field routes flexed into the slot and competing for red zone targets. Without question there will be some weekly volatility in Thomas' numbers but he should still push for 100 targets in a highly-coveted role in an elite offense.
If he continues earning hype into the preseason, expect his draft price to go up. Even if it does, there's a clear drumbeat building here for the rookie and we should follow it. There are not many better upside plays in the double-digit rounds.
As a rookie, Jaelen Strong didn't make much of an impact with just 14 catches on the season. He couldn't work past the veteran ahead of him and reportedly weighed as much as 231 pounds after checking in at 217 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Coach Bill O'Brien openly criticized Strong for his conditioning during last year's offseason camps.
However, contributing to the quiet drumbeat that seemed to go unnoticed were the positive reports regarding Strong that he began building late last season. Strong worked his way down to 197 pounds by December and looked "noticeably faster" to observers. Strong said, ""I took the coaching, I took the criticism, I took everything, and just got right," and O'Brien called him one the team's most improved players and noted "how far he's come" after a slow rookie season.
ESPN Texans reporter Tania Ganguli said she did not expect Will Fuller to be a Week 1 starter and instead pointed out how impressive Strong was in OTAs. Most fantasy owners sold their stock on the former third-round pick after Houston took Fuller and Braxton Miller in this year's NFL Draft, but both have questions in their profile that they could start slowly.
There's a good chance that Strong will open the season as the top receiver across from DeAndre Hopkins with Cecil Shorts in the slot. Nate Washington held that positon last year and averaged 6.7 targets per game. All of the Texans moves this offseason suggest they want to spread the ball around more in 2016 after DeAndre Hopkins absorbed over 190 targets last season. The Texans play with great pace on offense, ranking first and eighth in plays run over O'Brien's first two seasons. There is more opportunity for new faces in Houston's offense than many imagine.
We don't have much NFL film to work off of for Jaelen Strong, though I like the limited selection more than I imagined I would, but he was a productive college player at Arizona State. He profiles as a big possession and boundary receiver, but Strong did rip off a 4.44 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and posted a vertical jump in the 98th percentile. His best asset is the ability to consistently win contested catches.
The fantasy world has largely ignored this steady positive drumbeat for Jaelen Strong. He currently does not have an ADP on more casual sites like Fantasy Football Calculator, but even the sharpest of drafters aren't reacting to this story. Strong is all the way down at WR86 in MFL10 ADP and goes off the board in the mid-17th round. That's an insane value for a potential ascending player.
Strong needs to continue to build up the tempo of his drumbeat with some strong preseason outings, but he's passed every level of the test so far. He's well on the path to building the foundation for a breakout season.