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 that carries into training camp and peaks in the preseason. In this edition, we'll look at a second-year receiver attached to the league's reigning MVP, a potential value running back, and a surprising rookie starting receiver.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers
All signs pointed to Funchess coming out of the gate slow as a rookie. He was a 21-year old rookie (just turned 22 in May 2016), moved between tight end and wide receiver in college, and showed plenty of inconsistencies on film as a prospect. It was indeed a slow burn for Funchess, as the rookie out of Michigan caught more than four passes in just one game (Week 17) and two or fewer in 12 out of the 16 he played.
They hype is back on Devin Funchess this offseason, and it's more deafening than ever. As team leader Thomas Davispointed out recently, the second-year receiver "had an amazing camp. And it really started with OTAs and minicamp." That fits right in line with the steady drumbeat that we look for in these offseason hype trains. The writers covering the team were in lock-step all offseason with how impressive Funchess looked in practices.
One concern would be that the drumbeat came to a quick halt in the first preseason game. As Adam Levitan noted, Funchess played on only five of Cam Newton's 13 snaps in the preseason opener, all of which were as the lone X-receiver on run plays. This was a package in which the Panthers frequently deployed Funchess as a rookie. He did catch a touchdown, but that was with the second-team offense. We'd like to see that change in the second and especially third preseason game to continue letting that drumbeat build.
That first game's usage threw a little cold water on the optimism Funchess seemingly built in the offseason, at least for now. There's every reason to expect Ted Ginn, who got a red zone target from Newton in that first game, to keep the starting spot across from Kelvin Benjamin this season. If that's the case, it's hard to expect too much fantasy relevance from Funchess because the opportunity just won't be there.
In Kelvin Benjamin's rookie year, he and Greg Olsen dominated the market share of the Panthers' offense, combining for 49.7 percent of the team's targets. Cam Newton often speaks glowingly of Benjamin and the two established instant chemistry early in the receiver's career because Newton could live with his mistakes. The two remain close on the field and off:
Now, that sort of Narrative Street business isn't always worth considering, but it's important to note how both the team and quarterback feel about the player they perceive as the clear No. 1 receiver. It is unlikely Benjamin sees a big decrease in his share of the team targets, even if he does dip below 26 percent. Greg Olsen has 123 and 124 targets each of the last two season and has at last 100 in every season after 2011. This duo's volume in this offense is as secure as you can imagine, as long as they're healthy.
After the top-two, the pickings get quite slim for the ancillary pieces. The next highest targeted player in 2014 was Jerricho Cotchery with 78 targets and a 14.4 percent share. The fourth player in line was Jason Avant with 40 and 7.4 percent. All of this took place in a year where Carolina passed more than any other season in the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era. The Panthers ranked 19th in pass attempts in 2014, but ranked 26th on average every other year since 2011. Just because their quarterback was the MVP of the league during a run to the Super Bowl that they aren't any less of a run-based offense. Unless you believe the team will slip back to the seven-win range they lived in during 2014 after a 15-win campaign last season, the volume of targets players' maintained in Benjamin's rookie year represents a high watermark for every rung of the pecking order.
The only way Funchess pushes for 100-plus targets is in the event that Benjamin completely sputters out this season, either due to play or trouble coming back from his ACL injury. The Charlotte Observer reports the Panthers are bringing back him along slowly and he's still working on getting back to full-speed, so that latter scenario is plausible. However, in terms of player quality, Benjamin is still the superior asset as it stands today. In terms of their Reception Perception statistics, a methodology I developed to evaluate wide receivers, the difference in their rookie seasons was striking:
63.7 percent success rate vs. man coverage
77.9 percent success rate vs. press coverage
71.4 percent contested catch conversion rate
47.5 percent success rate vs. man coverage
34 percent success rate vs. press coverage (lowest in Reception Perception history)
62.5 percent contested catch conversion rate
63 percent success rate vs. man coverage
67 percent success rate vs. press coverage
63 percent contested catch conversion rate
Of course, it's critical to note that Benjamin (24) and Funchess (21) came into the NFL with a wide difference in age gap and experience level. Because Funchess was so green in his first year, it's completely reasonable to give him a pass for his poor Reception Perception data. However, this just underscores that if both are healthy, there's a zero percent that Funchess passes Benjamin in the pecking order. We should be completely open to that happening someday, but if all things are in order in 2016, this will not be that year.
With the lack of opportunity available in this low-volume passing offense and questions about where he is in his own development, Devin Funchess must only be considered as a late-round WR4 or WR5 upside flier in drafts. Luckily, that's exactly where he goes right now with a 12.01 ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator. At that price, I'm completely in on taking a shot on him on the speculative chance things break right in 2016. However, while I'm in on Funchess' long-term potential and believe Carolina is developing him the right way, I still maintain 2017 will be the year for Devin Funchess, while this season will continue to be more flashes of what's to come.
Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets
It's a bit of a quiet hype train, but make no mistake, the drumbeat is building for Bilal Powell. Over the last month, Bilal Powell's ADP jumped almost a full four rounds (13.07 to 9.10) in Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP. That coincides directly with a wave of black clouds surrounding Matt Forte's health. The new Jets running back hasn't practiced at all during training camp after injuring his hamstring and is now dropping the dreaded "ready for Week 1 guarantee" to the media.
Forte ranks sixth in the NFL among active rushers (including unsigned Steven Jackson and retired Marshawn Lynch) in rush attempts for his career with 2,035. He's logged a whopping 1,285 touches since 2012 alone and missed three games with an MCL last season in addition to the hamstring he's dealing with now. At age 30, the end could be near for the great Matt Forte.
Even if the curtain doesn't fall on Forte's career this year, team reporters were already expecting a timeshare in the Jets backfield. NJ Advance Media's Darryl Slater predicted a close to "even carry split" and Rich Cimini of ESPN expects the team to use a "time-share system" among their backs. Finally, Brian Costello of the New York Post believes the Jets "sputter" without Bilal Powell and that he will see "major touches" in 2016.
A split backfield would make sense seeing as the Jets gave Matt Forte (three years, $12 million with $8 million guaranteed) and Bilal Powell (three years, $11.25 million with $6 million guaranteed) incredibly similar contracts this offseason. The team showed their hand in how much they value Powell when they brought him back even after acquiring Forte.
Powell had a breakthrough season last year for the team that drafted him in 2011. He totaled over 700 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per reception. Powell stepped up in a big way down the stretch when Chris Ivory slowed down, catching 25 passes, showing he has a similar playing style to Matt Forte. The Jets under Chan Gailey love to spread the field but lack receiver depth beyond Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. That could lead to packages where Forte is the slot receiver and Powell is the pass-catcher in the backfield. The 2015 Jets were 11th in time of possession while leading, per Football Outsiders, but ranked 13th in the NFL in pass attempts. If the Jets take a step back as a team for any reason, their passing volume could crack the top-eight in the NFL in 2016, which would open up for plenty of receiving work for the running backs.
With questions around Forte and an already locked-in role in a pass-heavy offense, Bilal Powell makes for a great late-round pick at the running back position. Drafting him is a similar proposition to selecting Charles Sims, another popular mid-round, receiving running back. Both already have a locked in role catching passes, which boosts their weekly floor as is, but carry major fringe RB1 upside if something happens to the starter ahead of them.
You can believe the hype on Bilal Powell and he makes an excellent late-round pick if you build a zero-RB or wide receiver-heavy team. His mix of a safe weekly floor but potential upside is excellent for those squads.
Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans
The fantasy world went into a full-on Krabs Meme when news broke that Tajae Sharpe was running with the first-team in Titans OTAs over Dorial Green-Beckham. When Mike Mularkey told the media that Sharpe would remain the team's starter going into training camp, the public still insisted this was just a ploy to motivate the more talented Green-Beckham.
It appeared the fantasy community would go to any length to refuse Sharpe any credit for his quick ascension. It's past time for that to end.
While on the surface it seems hasty to crown a fifth-round pick as an NFL starter, but looking back on his history as a prospect, it's not too shocking. I highlighted Sharpe, alongside Sterling Shepard, as one of the two most experienced route runners in this class in my Reception Perception evaluation on the 2016 receiver prospects. Sharpe and Shepard were the only receivers to chart out above the prospect average at running the following routes: outs, comebacks, and flats. I thought even then, that the balance of their route assignments would help them get on the field early, and endear themselves to their NFL coaches. With that in mind, we shouldn't be so shocked to see Sharpe and Shepard running as clear starters and getting praised for their route-running already.
Sharpe's Reception Perception also showed he beat press coverage at an above-average rate and was right in line with the average at winning contested catches. Although his true strength and appeal lay with his ability to play multiple receiver spots. Sharpe took 48 percent of his sampled snaps at right wideout, 21.9 percent at left and 29.5 percent in the slot. He can play any of the receiver positions, and that is just another reason he's catching the eye of a coaching staff in search of receiver depth.
Another analyst who specializes in wide receivers, Jon Moore, runs a project called the Phenom Index that takes a quantitative, metric-based approach to studying the position. Tajae Sharpe came out as the top-rated receiver on the 2016 Phenom Index due to his young age at draft time (21) and immense college production.
His profile as a productive player who is solid in all facets and versatile in his assignments is no doubt right in line with what Murlarkey and a coaching staff that emphasizes discipline. Whenever a player rises up the depth chart early despite his mid-round status, it's often because he fits right in with the team philosophy; think back to Stefon Diggs and his clear fit with Teddy Bridgewater last season.
It's clear through his Reception Perception film evaluation and metrics illuminated in the Phenom Index that Sharpe is a true sleeper who could surprise. The question for fantasy is how much volume he can inherit in the Titans offense.
All the talk out of Tennessee surrounded the "exotic smash-mouth" approach Mike Mularkey wanted to employ on offense. It drew the snarky laughs from the fantasy community, but it's a philosophy that would be a bit off track from Mularkey's last stop as offensive coordinator. It might shock many to know that his Atlanta offense's ranked on average 12th in the NFL in pass attempts the four years he was there. He was paired with a young ascending quarterback at the time in Matt Ryan, much like he is now with Marcus Mariota. Of course, Tennessee will be run-based with the backfield tandem of DeMarco Murray and future star Derrick Henry, but Mularkey's history suggests they could pass more than most expect. If their defense doesn't improve leaps and bounds they might not have a choice either way.
Sharpe is a solid technician with a strong profile as a prospect. He's also already ascended to starter status on a team without many other established threats but comes attached to a quarterback who showed himself to be an efficient up-tempo passer as a rookie. While he might be just a late-round flier and likely only a bye week fill-in as a rookie, that's someone to monitor closely for future seasons.