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 a couple of rookie receivers with varying levels of buzz and the league's most valuable backup running back.
Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants
The Oklahoma product posted the highest scores in success rate vs. man (82.8) and press (91.1) coverage among the prospects evaluated in my unique charting methodology Reception Perception. That ability to get open at will with route-running reminiscent of an NFL veteran made him a great candidate for early success at the pro level. The routes he ran at an above-average rate -- the slant (27.4 percent), out (4.7 percent), comeback (6.6 percent) and flat (8.5 percent) -- are exactly the type of routes Ben McAdoo prioritizes in his quick-strike, up-tempo West Coast offense. The rookie is an ideal fit in New York as the slot/flanker complement to Odell Beckham Jr., making him a must-own fantasy receiver for 2016.
So, we know Sterling Shepard appears to have all the tools to be a strong NFL receiver with the technical prowess to produce the flashy plays but also be a reliable presence. However, let's take this from a macro level to examine whether he can live up to the already pulsating optimistic Year 1 expectations.
The buzz out of the Giants facility on Sterling Shepard has been deafening and in lock-step. He was an instant starter in mini-camps where he predictably flashed. Shepard carried that momentum into training camp, making "play after play" with the first team. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo actually thought he was watching Odell Beckham, not Shepard, when showing some teaching tape to his defenders, "I told the staff we have to do a better job there against Odell. And then I looked again and it was not Odell -- it was actually Shepard." Beckham himself even said, "I don't want to spoil the surprise, but he's going to be a special player." Sorry, Beckham, but the cat is already well out of the bag. All this positive buzz came as Victor Cruz's rehab unfortunately still looks to be a work in progress, at best.
Fantasy drafters are already drafting Shepard as the clear No. 2 in a pass-heavy offense. His ADP on fantasyfootballcalculator.com sits at WR37 in the eighth round. That's an optimistic projection for a rookie but Shepard not only has the skills and momentum to match that projection, but also the opportunity.
The Giants take to the air more than the majority of NFL squads. Per Warren Sharp, 62 percent of their play calls in 2015 were pass plays and they were the 11th-most pass-heavy team in the NFL in one score games. New York let 14.6 percent of their passing targets walk out the door when they made no effort to re-sign Reuben Randle. At worst, Shepard will assume his volume in the offense, and is far superior route-runner and technician, even at this point in his career. If for any reason he absorbs 100-plus targets, he and Beckham could tear through the NFL.
Believe the hype on Sterling Shepard, because all the factors line up to say he's in line for a strong rookie season. Rarely do opportunity, talent, and team fit all come together like this for a first-year player, but they have for this one.
Spencer Ware, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
In general, I think handcuffing is an overrated concept in fantasy football. However, in my case against the strategy, I listed Spencer Ware as the one exception to the rule. It seems odd that this relative unknown fourth-year back who saw 72 of his 75 career carries last season is such a high-priority backup. But what Spencer Ware put out on the field is demands our attention.
Ware's game film is nearly undeniable. He barreled through defenders like an avalanche, leaving would-be tacklers behind or grappling from the chore that is trying to bring him down. The Chiefs' battering ram also doesn't lack for patience, vision or the ability to create holes when the offensive line doesn't always open them. Ware shows all the traits on film you want in a foundation back.
Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which measures a running back's total value, places Ware in the same company as a Mark Ingram-level player. Joe Holk is doing revolutionary work with the running back position via his Rushing Expectation methodology. He tells us that Ware was elite against stacked boxes last season, "Ware had these ridiculous efficiency numbers facing eight or more in the box on 36 percent of his runs, or his overall numbers could have been even better. That was the second-highest distribution of total rush attempts of my initial sample against a loaded box. Against base sets, Ware's SR (success rate) was 65.4 percent, which absolutely demolishes every other player I have charted and was nearly 20 percent above the Chiefs 46.5 percent expectation."
Even if he's not a starter, don't rule out that he has some standalone value. Ware popped in five of his nine carries inside the 10-yard line for touchdowns last season. It's not out of the question that Ware assumes some early down and red zone work from Charles as he works back from injury in an effort to extend the Pro Bowler's career. Down the line, the Chiefs do want Ware more involved on passing downs.
If Charles ever goes down, both the film and advanced metrics indicate that Spencer Ware has RB1-level skills if given the opportunity. He could also be the long-term replacement for the longtime star runner. While he lies in wait for that day, Ware has too much talent to not figure into the Chiefs backfield.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Tyler Boyd already caught observers' attention with some dazzling catches in the preseason. He made a fine reception on a go-route against the Vikings in Week 1 and a great over-the-shoulder contorting adjustment on a touchdown catch against the Lions last week. With questions at every level of the Bengals pass-catching corps after A.J. Green, some have their eyes set on Boyd as a potential sleeper.
Unlike Sterling Shepard and despite his college production, Boyd surprisingly had one of the worst Reception Perception results among the 21 charted prospects this draft season. He finished with the second-lowest success rate vs. man (53.5) and press (45) coverage scores. That struck me as odd because he does show off plenty of detailed and technical nuances as a route-runner. However, his athletic profile is so diminished, he struggles to separate from strong man coverage on a route-to-route basis. The only player with a track record of NFL success that Boyd's NFL Scouting Combine results compared favorably to, per Mockdraftable, was Darrell Jackson. The rest of the bunch were either recent late-rounders or undrafted free agents and former flameouts.
I do believe that while Boyd's separation scores in Reception Perception and athletic measurables paint a deadly unfavorable picture, he can be a solid contributor at the NFL level. He adjusts so well to the ball in flight and can set up routes well enough that while he won't ever be a routine separator, he can be a reliable target. Reception Perception isn't designed to tell you "this player isn't good," but it exists to help quantify what we should expect from certain players in specific roles as to not ask too much of them. I would just assert that those ghastly Reception Perception results do foretell that Boyd's ceiling as an NFL player will be limited. The role outlined here isn't meant to be slanderous, Jerricho Cotchery fulfilled a similar function for the Steelers and Panthers late in his career, helping those teams to big wins.
The Bengals seem to be clued into what Boyd's ideal projected role is, as well. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com indicated after minicamp that "no matter what" he would be the Bengals slot receiver. He ran behind Bradon LaFell all offseason. Even after positive reports in training camp and a strong preseason, Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. suggested that Boyd would be behind LaFell if the veteran gets past a hand injury. Boyd is the long-term complement to Green either way, but the tenor from Cincinnati is that they do not wish to ask too much of him. It's not a one-to-one comparison, but Davante Adams flashed as a rookie in limited showings as a No. 3 but crumbled when asked to step into a starting role despite a year in the NFL.
Tyler Boyd landed in a prime spot for what I view should be his role; a complementary No. 3 option behind two well established high-end threats (Green and Tyler Eifert) and not a player that targets get funneled through. While that's good for the Bengals, it's hard to predict much fantasy value there for this season, even if he does usurp LaFell. With the departures of the solid Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, Green should get back to the 30-plus percent and 170-target share he garnered in years past. The Bengals could also rely more on a power run game with Jeremy Hill looking more like a viable threat in the preseason. Outside of Green, Eifert (when healthy) and the backs, the rest of the Bengals offense won't offer much for those looking for weekly production.