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 running back on the comeback trail, a surprising tight end starter and a potentially sneaky No. 1 receiver.
If there's a theme for this week's Hype Train or Smoke Screen, it should be to keep an open mind. Too often in fantasy football we hear that an unproven player is building buzz in the news and because it does not fit our expectations or preconceived notions we are quick to write them off. We've all done it. However, sometimes we let our bias cloud our vision in seeing a new reality that was staring us right in the face.
Projecting the Ravens offense is one of the more convoluted tasks right now. They go about four or five deep at tight end and have nearly seven wide receivers who are, to some degree, relevant. The confusion doesn't end in their backfield, where prognosticators can't find much clarity.
The Ravens veteran back Justin Forsett, who led the team in rushing each of the last two years despite ending 2015 on IR is returning to the roster. Last year's fourth-round pick Javorius Allen showed himself to be, at worst, a strong receiving back catching the third-most passes on the team (45). Buck Allen also had two games where he finished with double-digit targets. Baltimore topped it off by drafting a talented favorite of many draft analysts, Kenneth Dixon, when he slid to the fourth round in April.
Every fantasy analyst under the sun took turns staking claim to who out of that trio would emerge as the value play. Even here at NFL Fantasy, we're divided. Marcas Grant asserted during our "Rankings Council" that we were too low on Forsett, while Franchise reminded us he is still the starter even more recently. James Koh and Alex Gelhar have been aggressive with their projections and optimism for Kenneth Dixon from the start. Personally, I believe the community at large was way too quick to cast aside Buck Allen at any given chance.
Yet, is it possible that we all overlooked the true potential sleeper in the Ravens backfield? Recent reports suggest this might be the case.
Despite all the attention paid to other backs, Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun reported last week that it was Terrance West who was "the Ravens' most explosive offensive player" in training camp. This followed positive reports from Zrebiec out of offseason programs that West was in great shape and down 15 pounds from his previous weight north of 230.
We have to be cautious if it's just one rogue beat writer throwing praise at one player, for a multitude of reasons, but that doesn't appear to be the case here. ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley backed up the positive buzz by saying West, "has put himself in position of fulfilling a dream and starting for his hometown Baltimore Ravens."
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman also wasn't interested in shying away from mentioning West as an ascending player. Trestman told The Baltimore Sun West is "running aggressively. He's much improved in terms of his understanding of pass protection, which is critical to getting on the field. He's got a tremendous attitude, in the classroom, on the field."
Trestman's comments about West's positive attitude and the reality he's focused enough to shed the extra pounds might seem innocuous, but they're critical to this equation. After all, it was Mike Pettine's consistent critiques of West's attitude in Cleveland that was his downfall with the team that drafted him. In reading Hensley's post on ESPN and seeing West's recent comments, it sounds like he's experienced a personal turning point in his career. "I think I've been focused, but I'm more dialed in because of the situation I was in and coming to Baltimore," West said. "This is my hometown, so there's a lot at stake." He calls securing a starting spot for the Ravens "a dream come true" for him.
The rebirth of Terrance West is exactly the type of story the football analysis world at large is just dying to write off. We make this mistake every year, laughing off an unexpected but emerging reality just because it doesn't fit our expectations. It happened just two years ago with this same team. Fantasy owners were ready to crown anyone the replacement for Ray Rice in the Baltimore backfield in the 2014 preseason. Yet, when Justin Forsett revealed it would indeed be him with a 16-touch, 84-yard and one score game in Week 1, fantasy analyst still did not accept it and advised passing him up on the waiver wire.
You're bound to hear the same dismissal of Terrance West, if you haven't already, in the coming weeks. For the life of me, I don't understand why in a sport where the unpredictable happens at every turn its most dedicated observers are so quick to brush off these story lines with such fervor. Sometimes these narratives matter and phoenix from the ashes-type fables become reality. And when they come with the steady drumbeat that we look for in identifying sleepers in the offseason, we should pay attention.
As Chris Wesseling of Around the NFL notes in his search for "this year's Doug Martin" post, the final step for Terrance West will be to bring this positivity to the preseason game film with authoritative running. If he does so, it's time to take the notion that West could start for the Ravens or at least be a major factor in a timeshare quite seriously.
If West secures an early-season role as a force in the Ravens backfield, he makes for a perfect late-round flier for Zero-RB drafters. Even if younger backs like Allen or Dixon emerge to eat into the workload, West can give fantasy owners who punted the running back position relief for the first few weeks.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins hasn't taken advantage of his opportunities to this point since being a second-round draft pick by the Buccaneers in 2014. His struggles to stay healthy at the University of Washington rolled over into his pro career and even when he's on the field consistency hasn't been a strong suit. Over the offseason he added another black mark to his resume after getting hurling insults at fans on Twitter following getting kicked out of practice by new head coach Dirk Koetter.
Much like West, expect many to be ready to write off Cameron Brate as a legitimate fantasy option. However, we shouldn't be so eager to assume he won't have some utility this season. Jameis Winston loves throwing to tight ends and he has throughout his career. His top tight end, Nick O'Leary was one of Florida State's top receivers with 81 catches in Winston's final two seasons in school. The Bucs top two tight ends combined owned a 13 percent share of the team targets last year.
We also have evidence that Brate is at least a solid receiving option. He caught 76.7 percent of his total targets last season and totaled 120 yards and two scores in the three games where he saw four or more passes go his way.
If the Bucs offense is on the upswing, consider Cameron Brate as a potential beneficiary. Mike Evans is a virtual lock to have a big fantasy bounce back season, but beyond him there are nothing but questions, unless Vincent Jackson recaptures health and his old form at 33-years-old. Don't rule out Brate being "this year's Gary Barnidge" as an unknown tight end that rises up the target order to become fantasy viable.
Kyle Meinke of MLive.com dropped a rather large bombshell this morning with a report calling Marvin Jones the Lions No. 1 receiver. Meinke said that Jones "looks like the club's top wideout. And in recent days, it hasn't been all that close." While questioning everything about Tate's outlook, he relayed that Jones is catching "everything in his orbit" and building chemistry with Stafford.
Now, this could just be one of those rouge thoughts from camp, but we shouldn't be so quick to brush of the idea that Jones is the No. 1 receiver in Detroit despite Golden Tate having been their longer.
Golden Tate is a fine player and an important one in the Lions offense, but any notion that he could be a No. 1 for the team was always misguided. Those who just quote his splits from when Calvin Johnson was out in 2014 are offering you nothing but noise. He's not the consistent separator that a team can funnel downfield targets to. He'll certainly push for the team lead in catches but we saw last year that offense run through his type of receiver tend to struggle. If Tate loses any slot snaps to Anquan Boldin, that only dinges his safe floor further.
In my must-own wide receivers piece I noted that Marvin Jones' Reception Perception revealed he created consistent separation on intermediate routes. He can also work in traffic down the field with the highest contested catch conversion rate (90 percent) in series history. The Lions can't hope to replicate the offensive success they had with the primarily dink-and-dunk approach employed by Jim Bob Cooter late in 2015 for a full season in 2016. They need someone like Jones to assume the majority of the 149 targets Calvin Johnson left behind.
While it's fair to question whether Marvin Jones can be a legitimate No. 1 receiver at the NFL level, we should absolutely be open to the idea he can lead the Lions in all relevant receiving categories. At the very least, it is way past time for the egregiously large gap between Jones and Tate's ADPs to close. Don't be surprised if Jones ends up being one of the top breakout receivers this season.