The whole thing is bananas, OK?
Let’s just start there.
Just completely and absolutely bonkers.
Even in a life that has been a string of “I can’t believe this is happening” moments, this one is the ultimate.
But hold that thought for a minute.
I’ve written before about my younger brother Jonathan, by far the smartest Berry boy and someone who, because life is unfair, has a thick and luxurious head of hair.
Jonathan lives in Los Angeles and is a very successful TV producer and manager for 3 Arts Entertainment, a huge management and production company.
My brother is my best friend, and despite eight kids between us and the time difference, we talk often.
So a number of years ago, we are on the phone and he’s telling me a story. He had just run into his old friend, Joe. Joe and Jonathan had worked together many years before on a short-lived sitcom called “Carpoolers,” and while they are catching up, Joe’s phone goes off. He looks briefly at it and dismisses it quickly, saying to my brother, “Sorry. My fantasy football team.”
Jonathan says, “You play fantasy football?
Joe says, “Yeah. I’m in three leagues. I’m obsessed.”
So Jonathan says, “You know who my brother is, right?”
To which Joe goes, “No, who is –,” and it quickly clicks in for him as he remembers Jonathan’s last name. “Wait. Your brother is Matthew Berry? Dude, I read Love/Hate religiously. I love your brother.”
So, Jonathan says to me, finishing up the story, “Do you mind if I give Joe Russo your email address?”
You mean Joe Russo of Joe and Anthony Russo? The Russo Brothers’ Joe Russo? That Joe Russo? Are you kidding me?
Hold that thought.
If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Instagram or listened to the podcast, you know I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU as it is commonly known. Currently a sprawling collection of 23 feature films, along with a number of TV shows, it is a massive critical and commercial success. But probably most importantly, the MCU has redefined what a superhero movie means.
Staying true to the complex and vulnerable characters from the Marvel comic books, the movies show characters that, despite being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist who has a flying suit of metal or a teenager who can crawl upside down, feel real and relatable to us. Characters that show even the most powerful among us have egos, tempers and gripping moments of self-doubt.
When Stan Lee, the genius behind Marvel Comics passed away, Seth Rogen said on Twitter, “Thank you Stan Lee for making people who feel different realize they are special.”
More than anything else, that is why the MCU resonates so strongly with me. Because we all feel different, right? All of us have felt out of place, awkward or insecure at some point in our lives. Lord knows, I certainly do, and I’ve written about it extensively.
I feel that to this day.
So yeah, the MCU films aren’t just a bunch of movies that I enjoy to kill the time on a random Saturday. No, they mean a great deal to me.
And at the time of this call with my brother, my all-time favorite MCU film (and to this day, one of my favorite movies ever) is “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s a great action movie. It is filled with heart and heartache, and it’s a crucial story for the overall arc of the MCU, with many surprises along the way you never see coming. It’s an amazing film on many levels and one I have seen many times.
Including its credits. Which read:
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
The Russo Brothers.
And now my brother is asking if he can share my email address with Joe?
Uh, yeah, I assure Jonathan, that would be just fine.
Joe emailed me an incredibly flattering note and I, in turn, fanboyed out on him. So, we started emailing back and forth, and then we started texting, we grabbed dinner a few times, and I discovered that in addition to both being fantasy football fanatics, we are both big family guys, both have suffered a lot with our real-life football teams (although Joe’s Browns are looking up) and generally have a lot in common. We became friends, and he eventually joined our ESPN Fantasy Focus Football podcast celebrity league.
Most importantly, forget his professional success. He is just, legitimately, an awesome human being. Easy to be friends with. If you didn’t know who he was, you would never guess what he does for a living, let alone that he and his brother have directed the highest-grossing worldwide movie in the history of cinema. I have never met a more down-to-earth person. Through Joe, I have since met Anthony a few times and, well, it must run in the family. They are very similar in that respect.
During the course of our friendship, a few things happen. Joe and Anthony direct “Captain America: Civil War,” another massive critical and financial success for Marvel. One that, despite its title, features a ton of different Avengers characters and, among other things, is the first film to integrate Spider-Man into the MCU and, of course, introduces Black Panther to the MCU. Two huge moments of MCU history among many others in that movie.
After the success of that movie, Marvel announces Joe and Anthony will be directing the two-part film series that will mark the end of this particular movie arc. Ten years in the making, with 22 total films in the first three phases of the MCU, the Russo Brothers will direct “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
They will be shot back-to-back in Atlanta over more than a year and will feature pretty much every possible character you could think of from the other 21 movies in the MCU. (If you want to get technical, “Infinity War” was movie 19 and “Endgame” was movie 22, with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Captain Marvel” between the final two “Avengers” films).
And so it was, on set from Atlanta, having mostly wrapped “Infinity War” and starting to do some stuff on “Endgame,” that Joe and I are talking on the phone. I’m asking him how the movie is going and we’re talking about that a bit when he just casually asks an insane question.
“So hey, I got a part you’re perfect for. You wanna be in the movie?”
I manage to stammer out an “Obviously. Of course.” And Joe says great. He explains it is part of a big scene, that Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth would be in it, and that’d I’d be a law enforcement type. That’s all I knew.
And I was excited, but honestly, I didn’t do backflips or anything.
Because I didn’t believe it.
Not that I thought Joe was lying, but I just thought about my own life. I will offer or agree to things sometimes and completely mean it at the moment, and then you get hit with a tons of requests for shows and podcasts and meetings. And then my wife calls and I need to pick up the kids somewhere, and don’t forget this doctor’s appointment and whatever. Life happens and you completely forget about that thing you genuinely meant.
And that’s me in my dumb life. I have a job with a decent amount of demands on it, but come on. I’m not Joe Russo, co-directing two massive movies that have a reported budget of almost $700 million. He is dealing with more movie stars (and their agents and their publicists, etc.) than any movie in the history of cinema. Would not be surprised (or offended) if he forgot.
But then a week later, I get a call.
“Matthew? It’s Chris Castaldi, first AD [assistant director] of ‘The Avengers.’ I understand you’ll be joining us.”
Chris just tells me a little more than Joe did: big scene, Downey and Hemsworth are in it, they need my measurements for a suit. We discuss dates, travel plans and the fact that, you know, I can’t tell anyone. The scrutiny and interest in these movies are incredible and everyone is sworn to secrecy.
I explain the shoot is during football season, so I can’t just disappear for three days. So, I’m granted a small circle of people I can tell. So Daniel Dopp, Stephania Bell, Field Yates and Mike Clay agree to cover for me on the podcast. Field also says he’ll fill in for me on The Fantasy Show, remarking wryly, “So while you’re on set with Robert Downey Jr., I’ll be hanging out with puppets. Great.” But he said it with a smile. And with approval from my boss as well, they all graciously agreed to do extra work so I could go do this. Forever indebted.
But the list of people at ESPN who knew I was doing this was less than 10. And so, about a month later, I’m on a plane to Atlanta. And it still hasn’t hit me.
We get to the hotel, and I’m told to be in the lobby at 6 a.m. the next day. OK, but I still have no idea what to expect.
I’m in the lobby on time the next morning and a woman approaches me, introducing herself. “Hi,” she says. “I’ll be your driver while you’re with us.”
I have a driver?
As we drive, she explains that she’ll take me to their base camp but that we are shooting on location today. At base camp, I will get fitted by wardrobe, get some breakfast, sign a bunch of papers and then she will drive me to the set across town where we will do rehearsal. Does that work for me, she asks?
We pull into camp and she drops me off at my trailer. Whoa. I have a trailer. Crazy town.
Chris comes in to say hi in person, and I meet way too many people to mention, but suffice to say, all the ADs, wardrobe people, production assistants and makeup and hair specialists I dealt with were just awesome and kind and fantastic.
By the way, if you somehow haven’t seen “Avengers: Endgame” yet (or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) and don’t want any spoilers, this is the part of the story to click to pop down to the players section.
We try on some suits, I sign about a billion different non-disclosure agreements (NDAs, no phones are allowed on set, I learn) and other assorted paperwork. I’m then given a script and I learn my character is actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. But knowing that is my first clue that this is either a flashback scene or some sort of time-travel movie because, as we learned in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” … S.H.I.E.L.D. no longer exists.
We get to the set and HOLY CRAP! I look around … we are shooting today in the lobby of Stark Tower, featured prominently in a lot of early MCU movies, especially “The Avengers.” But my inner fanboy doesn’t even have time to fully process that, because I’m being walked toward the center of the floor. And also walking toward the center is Anthony Russo, to run the rehearsal.
And Chris Hemsworth.
And Robert Downey Jr.
Internally, I am saying this. Outwardly, I am trying desperately to remain calm and act like no big deal. But it’s tough.
Because it hits me that this might actually be happening.
And that freaks me the heck out.
All my life, one of my great fears has been things being taken away. It’s been many years of therapy, and it would take a whole ‘nother column to unpack that box and discuss how and why it’s like that, but just realize that one of my triggers is a weird fear of things being taken away from me.
And I desperately don’t want this to be taken away. Which it easily could be. Even in this moment.
I have no idea if Chris Hemsworth or Robert Downey Jr. know who I am. They are the stars of an extremely important project to The Walt Disney Company. If one of them even looks at me sideways, I’m done.
For those of you who don’t know, I worked for a long time in Hollywood before coming to ESPN, so I am very aware of how it all works. If, after rehearsal, one of them pulls the director aside and says, “Uh, this is ‘Avengers: Endgame’ … can we do better than the fantasy football guy?” I’m gone. Just like that. No questions asked.
I have no idea if they have any clue who I am. They make no indication if they do, but both guys are all smiles and friendly as we meet and shake hands.
And as I am processing this … no big deal, whatevs, Robert Redford walks in.
I had no idea he was in the movie until that very moment. His appearance was a massive secret (I didn’t even tell my wife) and a key plot point, as he was reprising his role from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as Alexander Pierce.
I’m to play Pierce’s right-hand man — his top S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. (And, ahem, HYDRA. Hail HYDRA!)
And as Anthony walks us through the scene real quick, it suddenly hits me in a very real way. This is just next-level nuts. I’m about to do a scene in which the principal actors are Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Robert Redford and … me.
We rehearse it once or twice with a couple of stand-ins. I have one line, and no one seems to look at me weird when I say it. Whew. But other than introductions and my one line, I am saying nothing. But as we rehearse what to do with the briefcase holding the Tesseract before Tony Stark’s “fake heart attack” moment, we aren’t getting anywhere. Everyone is offering suggestions for how to handle it, but I’m saying nothing.
Eventually, I scrounge up my courage and say, “Uh, excuse me.” And everyone stops and looks at me. I panic. But Robert Downey Jr., bless him, turns to me and genuinely interested says, “Please. You have an idea?”
I did, it was a small thing that involved amping up the struggle for the case and me being a lot more aggressive toward Tony than originally scripted — and whew, everyone liked that idea.
Rehearsal is over, everyone goes to get hair and makeup and get into costume, and when we come back to set, now I see Tom Hiddleston, in full-on Loki gear, as well as Mark Ruffalo, in his Hulk CGI outfit. All of it very cool.
“Thor: Ragnarok” had just opened that week, and I thought this was a cool moment and indicative of who Robert Downey Jr. is. As soon as Tom got on set, Downey went straight over to him, telling him how he had just seen “Ragnarok” and how wonderful it was. He was effusive, detailed and genuine in praise to Tom, and I could tell Tom was really pleased. It was cool to witness.
So, we shoot the scene a few times, they incorporate my little suggestion, and then it’s time for lunch. As I’m looking around for craft service, an assistant director sidles up to me.
“If you’d like, you’re welcome to join Mr. Downey for lunch.”
I’m shown to a private area where both Anthony and Joe Russo are. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are sitting there, as are Robert Redford and his producing partner. And as I walk in, Jimmy Rich, Downey’s right-hand man forever, shakes my hand and gives me a hug.
He is just the sweetest guy, full of energy and a die-hard Steelers fan. So we talk about Pittsburgh and fantasy — and then Downey walks in, takes one look at me and:
Downey: “You ever done anything like this before?”
Me: “Well, I’ve played myself in some sitcoms and stuff, and done a few cameos here and there, but nothing like this. “
Downey: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.”
Me: “Robert, from you that is a huge compliment. I will take that.”
Downey: “No, seriously, you’re doing really well.”
And then he turns to the Russo Brothers and says, pointing to me:
“We should give him more stuff.”
The Russos are nodding, and I am just processing the fact that the greatest actor of our generation just said that.
And sure enough, that was what happened.
I ended up shooting six lines in the movie, and four ended up making the final cut. There’s a lot going on in the scene, and I’m on camera for only two of them, but if you pay close attention (and now thanks to the movie being available on digital and Blu-ray, you can. Pause it during my scene. Rewind it. Send me screenshots!) you can hear them all.
I cannot stress this enough: I wish everyone could have the experience of working with Robert Downey Jr. for at least one day. What a truly special human being. During my two days on set, he could not have been kinder, more welcoming, more gracious, more giving. What can I say? I love him 3,000. Truly.
And I’m not alone. The majority of the crew on that movie had been working with Downey on the MCU since the first “Iron Man” and to a person, they all said to me, unprompted, “Isn’t Robert great?” And when I would remark how kind he had been to me, they all said the same thing: “That’s just who he is. He’s always like that.”
That night at dinner with Joe Russo, he said the same thing, talking about how as brilliant as Downey is as an actor, he is an even better person.
That’s true for all of them. Downey, the Russos, Hemsworth, Redford, everyone. They all were incredible, as was Jimmy Rich, Chris Castaldi, the entire crew. Between takes, the actors shot some goofy stuff with me, some of which we’ve shared, and they went above and beyond to make my experience an incredible one.
Aside from the obvious (hello, I’m in a movie in a franchise that I absolutely love), it was just an remarkable experience from top to bottom. And with any organization, that starts at the top.
The way Anthony and Joe run their set is so relaxed, so warm and welcoming, it’s no wonder their movies turn out so well. Everyone is inspired to do their best work, is given creative freedom to try things and is incredibly respectful of everyone else and their process. It was breathtaking to witness.
One of the things Joe does to foster such an environment is that he plays in and encourages two different fantasy football leagues on set. One is the famous “Avengers” league that Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, Joe and others play in. And the second is a league filled with the crew. How welcoming is their set? On my second day of filming, the entire crew league wore football jerseys in support of me and their league. It doesn’t get better than that.
The rest of the filming went great. To the point about letting people try stuff out, toward the end of one the takes in which Tony is on the ground and we are trying to revive him, I jokingly said to Thor, “Do something, Thor. Isn’t your hammer magic or something?” And sure enough, Thor taps Tony on the chest. They (rightfully so) cut my version of that line. Much better to have the superhero do it on his own than have a suggestion from some random S.H.I.E.L.D. guy. But Thor using the hammer on Tony wasn’t scripted, and that moment made it in the final film. Very proud of that.
I was nervous about how the film would turn out and, of course, specifically my scene. And when I saw the movie, I was blown away. Thrilled with how my part came out, of course, but beyond honored to be even a small part of the film. Because it’s truly a cinematic masterpiece. As a former screenwriter, I know how incredibly difficult it is to deliver a movie that keeps so many characters afloat, wraps up a bunch of storylines in a fun, entertaining, heartfelt and surprising way, and do it while staying within the larger MCU universe. What screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely accomplished is nothing short of amazing. Seriously, you have no idea. Incredible. They too couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive on set.
As it turned out, the filming was the easy part. The Russos, Downey and everyone else made it so. The hard part turned out to be the waiting. “Avengers: Infinity War” hadn’t even come out yet, so I had to wait two years until “Endgame” would come out — and I had to keep it a secret, of course. Which I did. Very few people knew. Because they were (rightfully so) so strict about keeping any spoilers from coming out, I wasn’t even allowed to publicly acknowledge I was in the movie until the Tuesday after it came out.
So tons of people were reaching out on social media, and I couldn’t even say anything. But I read and appreciated them all. I appreciated all my friends and colleagues who reached out, either privately or publicly to say something. It meant a lot. And then, eventually, I was allowed to share some of the behind-the-scenes stuff we shot as well. Start to finish, it was the best non-wife or non-kid experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Like most things in my life, it started because of fantasy football. It was unexpected, it was nerve-wracking, it was unfamiliar and, in the end, it turned out better than I ever could have hoped.
Here’s to hoping your fantasy season turns out the same way.
And that, my friends, brings us — meanderingly slower than normal — into this year’s Love/Hate. Hey, I know that intro was long, but don’t worry: About 10,000 words of football is below. Before we get there, real quick for the new kids in class:
This is NOT a sleeper-and-bust column.
I hate those terms, as I believe any player can be a sleeper or a bust — it just depends what it costs to acquire said player. (But if you do want sleepers and busts, you can click here for our ESPN Fantasy staff’s choices.)
So, this is not about the players as much as it is their ADP on ESPN.com. I realize ADP varies by site, but I’m a company man, so we’re using ESPN’s. Just because I list Zach Ertz as a hate below and Darren Waller as a love doesn’t mean I advocate drafting Waller ahead of Ertz. It means I’m nervous about Ertz’s draft place in the overall ranks and love that Waller is free in drafts.
That’s what this column is going to attempt to do: Identify players who I believe will either outperform or fall short of their current ESPN average draft position (ADP). As always, check my constantly updated ranks to see where I fall on certain players in comparison to others.
Understand that rankings and ADPs are different at every site and that things will change greatly the closer we get to the season. I’m writing this on Aug. 12. Lastly, this is based on PPR scoring. As always, there are more “love” names than “hate” — you don’t need me to tell you players with lower ADPs aren’t likely to return value. Their low ADPs tell you they are not highly thought of.
Finally, be sure to check out The Fantasy Show on ESPN+ and the Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast (also broadcast live on Twitter, YouTube and the ESPN App).
To paraphrase Tony Stark, part of the journey is also the beginning. Let’s get to it:
Baker Mayfield, Browns: Want him in a league where you get points for epic facial hair growth. Want him in a league where you get points for chugging beers. Want him in a league where you get points for swagger. Want him in a league where you get points for jorts-wearing social media savvy. And I most definitely want him in a league where you get points for throwing the football. A lot of people forget that Mayfield started last season as a backup to Tyrod Taylor and got very few reps until he took over the starting job. I’m angry just thinking about it. Can they fire Hue Jackson again?
Anyway, once Freddie Kitchens took over as the offensive coordinator in Week 9, we saw a star in the making. The Bake Show was 10th in completion percentage, fifth in air yards per attempt, led the NFL in deep completions per game, had multiple touchdown passes in eight of his final 10 games, was second in red zone passer rating and was the 10th-best QB in fantasy. All the while showing fearlessness, accuracy and decision-making that made it clear he was easily worth the No. 1 overall pick. Now, he is coming off an offseason to get immersed in the offense while Kitchens can tailor it to Mayfield’s strengths (as opposed to doing it on the fly). Oh, and the Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. Eli Manning scored 99.2 more fantasy points the first year he had Beckham than he did the season before, and that was when Odell was a rookie. Beckham might already be Joe Russo’s favorite Brown of all time. If not, he soon will be. Mayfield is a special player in a fantasy-friendly offense with real talent around him. Sky’s the limit.
Carson Wentz, Eagles: Since the start of 2017, Wentz has been the fifth-best quarterback in fantasy on a points-per-game basis. Yes, points per game. No full-season stats here, and that’s the rub, isn’t it? We don’t question the talent, just whether he can stay on the field to maximize it. The fact that the Eagles’ front office, which I assure you knows a lot more about Wentz’s health than you or I, thought he was worth $107 million guaranteed says something. If you won’t trust in Wentz’s health, will you trust in Doug Pederson’s offense? Since he took over, the Birds are sixth in pass attempts, fifth in percentage of goal-to-go yards that come via the pass and 13th or better in passing touchdowns, passing yards and QB fantasy points. Kids, Pederson is a former NFL QB himself who loves to throw and has a fantasy-friendly offense. An offense that, by the way, added DeSean Jackson in the offseason. Don’t underestimate what that will bring to the offense. Over the past two years, Wentz has been top 10 in the NFL in air yards per pass attempt, deep touchdown passes and deep touchdown percentage. Adding D-Jax will only help those numbers. So listen, Johnny Naysayer, if Howie Roseman trusts Wentz’s health enough to give him a deal that could be worth $144 million, I’m pretty sure you can swing a 10th-round pick for your fake football team.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals: Two first names, always a crowd-pleaser. You know what else is a crowd-pleaser? Quarterbacks who can run. From Weeks 12 to 17 last season, Josh Allen was the No. 1 QB in fantasy, while completing only 51.9% of his passes in that span, last among 33 qualifying signal-callers. In that same time frame, Lamar Jackson was the sixth-best QB in fantasy while completing 56.8% of his passes, 31st in the NFL. Running ability makes up for a whole bunch. I mean since 2011, Cam Newton is the second-best QB in fantasy while completing just 59.7% of his passes. So, despite the rookie status of Murray and his head coach, the shaky offensive line and the unproven pass-catchers, it’s easy to see the potential of Murray, who last year became only the second QB in FBS history to have 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season.
Rushing can mask a bad passer, but guess what? Murray is NOT a bad passer. In fact, just the opposite. He completed 69% of his passes at Oklahoma last season while averaging 10.6 air yards per attempt. By comparison, the year before at Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield had a 70.5% completion rate with 10.7 air yards per attempt. Baker was the top overall pick and took over a poor offense last season. Sound familiar? We know Kliff Kingsbury’s system will be fantasy-friendly; as head coach at Texas Tech (2013 to 2018), his Red Raiders were second in the nation in passing yards and passing touchdowns per game. It won’t always be pretty, but Murray is going to throw, he is going to run and he is going to pile up fantasy points. And if for some reason it doesn’t work out, the position is deep enough that you can find someone good on the waiver wire. But it’s going to work out, especially for someone with an ADP of 116 on ESPN as of this writing. Oh, by the way, you know who the only other QB with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in FBS history is? Deshaun Watson.
Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: Make no mistake, it’s not always going to be a thing of beauty. But even in an ugly season in 2018, Winston still averaged 4.6 deep completions and 11.1 deep attempts per game in his nine starts. Both would have led the NFL, if he qualified. And now he gets Bruce Arians as a head coach, whose teams were second in air yards per pass attempt during his time in Arizona (2013 to 2017). During the past two years, Winston has thrown for more than 300 yards in half of his games. Half. And all the elements that allowed Tampa Bay’s QBs to average 22.6 fantasy PPG (second most) last season are in place once again this season: a core of talented pass-catchers, a suspect defense, a good offensive playcaller and no established run game. Look, you don’t have to watch him. Just enjoy the fantasy points at a steep discount.
Others receiving votes: Somehow Jared Goff is currently going 15th among QBs on ESPN.com, in Round 12. The seventh-best QB in fantasy last season gets my little Cooper Kupp back, adds dynamic Darrell Henderson out of the backfield and is coming off a year when he had five different games of 25-plus fantasy points. In 2018, only Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees had more … Once Amari Cooper showed up, Dak Prescott was the sixth-best QB in fantasy in total points and ninth on a PPG basis. He has scored exactly six rushing TDs for three straight years, and he enters 2019 with a full offseason to get even more in sync with Cooper. … I always love those dual-threat QBs, and last year Mitchell Trubisky had the fifth-most rushing yards by a QB, despite missing two games. The 11st-best QB in fantasy last year on a points-per-game basis, Trubisky is now another year into Matt Nagy’s system and is surrounded by one the best groups of offensive talent. … Speaking of rushing QBs, while it won’t always be pretty but he absolutely will outperform his current ADP of QB23, how about Josh Allen, fantasy’s No. 1 QB from Week 12 of last season. With an improved offensive line, better pass-catchers (including John Brown, who is a great fit for Allen’s arm) and another year in the league, I like Allen in a QB2-with-upside way.
Quarterbacks I hate in 2019
Tom Brady, Patriots: Let’s be very clear right up front. He is THE GOAT. Six rings, more than 70,000 yards and 500 touchdowns, a genetic freak to be playing at this level into his 40s and he will be an unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is truly the greatest to play the position. I just can’t get with his current ADP of QB10. He was only the 18th-best QB in fantasy last year on a points-per-game basis, and he finished the season without multiple touchdown passes in six of the final nine games, as the Patriots went more run-heavy. New England was fifth in rush percentage and ninth in red zone rush percentage last season. Think about the playoffs. I mean, that worked out for them, right? They won it all … again. Well, of the 12 playoff teams last season, the Patriots were last in passing rate (53.6%); and in those three postseason games, Brady had just two touchdown passes and three interceptions on 125 attempts. So why go away from a formula that worked so well? Especially considering the retirement of Rob Gronkowski.
During the course of Gronk’s career, Brady averaged 18.5% fewer fantasy points per game when Gronk was not there. Last season, Brady averaged 17.5 points a game. And 18.5% less of that is 14.3 points a game, which is in the Eli Manning/Alex Smith range from last season. Other than Julian Edelman and James White, the other pass-catchers for the Pats are either very young, new to the team, coming of a horrific injury, suspended or some combination thereof. It’s hard to muster enthusiasm for this receiving corps. All the more reason for Brady to hand off a lot, throw a few clutch passes when needed, win a ton of games … and not be a top-tier fantasy quarterback.
Drew Brees, Saints: Brees is among the best to do it, and as an old guy myself, it hurts to have both him and Tom Brady on the hate list this season; but the numbers are what they are. In addition to both being Super Bowl winners and eventual first-ballot Hall of Famers, Brady and Brees have something else in common: They’re both on teams that are starting to run a lot more. Since 2017, Brees is averaging 20.4% fewer pass attempts per game than he did in the five seasons prior. In fact, last season Brees finished outside the top 10 in pass attempts, completions and yards for the first time since 2004. Now, he did have a top-five touchdown rate last season and that carried his fantasy managers. But let’s not forget that a more normalized touchdown rate in 2017 resulted in him being QB13 on a per-game basis. He is an obvious regression candidate in that aspect.
One statistic from New Orleans’ 2018 season that is likely to be repeated: No team in the NFL had more red zone rushing attempts than the Saints. Yes, Brees’ overall fantasy numbers look good from last season, but ask anyone who had him how they feel. He absolutely killed fantasy teams in Weeks 13 to 16, averaging a measly 11 points per game (28th best). Brutal. And he is likely to once again underperform for weeks on end, as not once, not twice, but three times this season the Saints play on the road in consecutive weeks (including Weeks 16 and 17, the championship weeks in standard ESPN leagues). Since 2015, six of Brees’ seven worst games have come on the road, and he is averaging 27.1% fewer points away from New Orleans. He also had four rushing touchdowns last season. How likely do you think he is to repeat that? Exactly.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks: Everyone is screaming regression at anyone who blinks at Patrick Mahomes, but why is no one talking about it when it comes to Wilson? If not for Mahomes, Wilson’s career highs in both touchdown percentage and fantasy points per pass attempt would have led the league. In 2018, Wilson’s numbers in both of those categories rose by more than 21% from his career rates. I mean, look at these numbers you might have forgotten from my 100 Facts column: From 2012 to 2017, he averaged 0.501 fantasy points per pass and had a 5.7 TD%. Last year? 0.618 and 8.2%. In other words, his 2018 season, despite Seattle leading the NFL in rush percentage, represented a 23.4% spike in points per pass and a 43.9% spike in percentage of passes resulting in a TD. After rushing for 11 TDs in his first three seasons (averaging 102.7 carries per season), he has run for just five scores in the four seasons since (84.3 carries per season). He never misses a game, and he is a very good real-life QB, so there’s a floor there. And there’s a chance the Seattle defense falls off, so maybe he gets into more shootouts. But for me, Wilson got lucky last year, considering his low volume and lack of rushing scores. And even with all that, he finished as QB9. He is unlikely to get there this season, especially with no Doug Baldwin, making him a tough buy at his current ADP.
Running backs I love in 2019
David Johnson, Cardinals: You already know I’m in on Kyler Murray, so it makes sense that I like his running back, one of the best in the NFL. We know (or you should, since I wrote this whole thing in my Draft-Day Manifesto) that fantasy success comes primarily from two things: talent and opportunity.
We know DJ is talented; remember he still has the best fantasy season by a running back since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 on his résumé.
As for opportunity, Johnson is the only running back who has handled at least 70% of his team’s carries in two of the past three seasons, and the volume for Johnson is likely to once again be insane. I mean, even in an awful season in 2018 for a historically bad Cardinals offense for which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Johnson still somehow finished as the ninth-best running back in fantasy. And that’s because of his volume (last season, he handled an NFL-high 48.3% of his team’s touches). While the jury is still out on how many games Arizona will win this season, the presence of Murray and Kliff Kingsbury’s offense should be very fantasy-friendly for DJ. During Kingsbury’s tenure at Texas Tech, his teams led the nation in offensive plays per game and were top 10 in terms of total RB receptions. I have Johnson as a top-five player overall. It’s mind-boggling to me that as of this writing, he is going in the second round.
Damien Williams, Chiefs: Whether or not you want to spend an early pick on Patrick Mahomes, we can all agree that he’s good, right? I understand the game theory behind not drafting him early, but it’s not due to a lack of confidence in his talent. Over the past three seasons, seven of the top 11 offenses in terms of number of red zone drives also rank top 11 in running back fantasy points. So yeah, the Mahomes tide is going to lift all boats. Williams scored four times and racked up 250 total yards on his 45 postseason touches last season. If you extend the sample to his final six games from last season (playoffs included), we are talking 10 touchdowns. Think about that. A man who scored 10 times in six games is being drafted as a fringe starter this season. Fun fact: No running back who scored at least 10 times last season finished worse than RB21 (Marlon Mack). And Williams reached that total in six games. Even if his scoring rate is cut in half from that stretch (five scores every six games), we are still talking about 13 touchdowns over the course of a full season, and no RB who scored at least 13 times last season finished worse than RB12. It’s a bit of loosey-goosey math. And I get the small-sample-size concern — plus the fact that, as of this writing, he has missed some camp with a hamstring — but come on. He’s currently going in the sixth round. The sixth!
Even if you don’t believe Williams is an elite talent (and given his career so far, the jury is still out), I’m not sure it matters. Because the other thing we know, besides Mahomes being good, is that you want Andy Reid’s running back. Since Reid took over as head coach in 2013, the Chiefs lead the league in RB receiving TDs and are top five in both rushing TDs and YPC. Williams is one of the most divisive players in fantasy this year — and there’s certainly some risk involved — but I’m in.
Josh Jacobs, Raiders: As my fantasy ride or die for 2019, I’m all-in on Josh Jacobs. It’s about talent and opportunity, right? Let’s start with the talent: He averaged 5.9 yards per carry during his career at Alabama and caught 81.4% of his career targets while averaging 12.1 yards per catch. He looks the part of a feature back on tape, and he was widely considered the best running back prospect in this year’s NFL draft (and he was, in fact, drafted as the first RB off the board in the first round). In Jon Gruden’s 12 years as a head coach, his RB1 has averaged 257 touches per season. I’ve interviewed Jacobs twice this offseason, and he told me the Raiders have him lining up all over the field, out wide, out of the slot; offensive coordinator Greg Olson is being creative in finding ways to get him the ball. I learned Jacobs actually played quarterback his senior year in high school. Now, it was for a small school, and he was a Wildcat QB, but still. He threw the ball some. I asked him if Coach Gruden knew this. Josh just smiled: “We’ve already got the package installed.” Massive workload coming for a guy on a team that, even in a lost season in 2018, was sixth in red zone rush percentage. ALL. IN.
Dalvin Cook, Vikings: Probably my “love” selection I am most nervous about, but YOLO, am I right, kids? If you draft him, I definitely think you should invest in Alexander Mattison, but if — I know, huge if — he can stay healthy, he has legit top-five upside. The Vikings want to run more this year, as evidenced by the change late last season to new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Under previous OC John DeFilippo, the Vikes ranked 29th in rush percentage. Under Stefanski, they ranked sixth. Now, it was just three weeks, but still. They want to run and helping their cause is Gary Kubiak, who joined the staff this offseason. In Kubiak’s final five seasons in Houston, the Texans ranked fourth in running back points, and they ran at an above-average rate when he was in Denver. A 16-game season where Cook averages more than 5.7 yards per carry — as he did in his final five games last season — is a real possibility. If he can stay healthy. It depends what kind of fantasy player you are and how risk-averse you are, but I like him this year.
Chris Carson, Seahawks: Did Chris Carson do something unthinkable that I’m just not aware of? Is he mean to kids? Kick animals? Did he spoil the end of “Avengers: Endgame” for you on Twitter? Look, he must have done something, because the fantasy football community hates Chris Carson. And having done something terrible is the only explanation I can come up with. Because otherwise his seventh-round ADP and current RB25 rank make no sense. He’s the starting running back on the run-heaviest team in the NFL and he’ll turn 25 in September. After an injury ended his rookie season after just four games, he came back strong in Year 2. Last season, he finished with three straight games of at least 115 rushing yards and a rushing score, the longest such streak since Adrian Peterson in 2012 (he did it four straight).
Before you yell “Rashaad Penny” at me, you do know Mike Davis and his 146 touches last season are now in Chicago, right? Penny can receive a significant increase in touches this season and Carson will still get tons of volume. In fact, those 146 touches may not all go to Penny. There’s a chance Carson gets even more work here. While getting healthier as the season went on, no player had more rushing attempts in Weeks 14-17 last season than Carson (90 for 447 yards and five touchdowns in four games). Last season, the only three running backs to run for at least 1,100 yards and nine rushing touchdowns were Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley II and … Chris Carson.
Last point here. Let’s do a quick blind résumé. Here are two players:
• 13.4% of his carries gained 10-plus yards, while he failed to gain positive yardage 16.2% of the time.
• Sixth among 37 RBs with 125 carries last season in yards per carry after first contact
• 4.7 yards per carry, 82.2 rushing yards per game
• Scored fewer than 10 fantasy points in 28.6% of his games, averaged 14.39 PPG
• 6.8% of his carries gained 10-plus yards, while he failed to gain positive yardage 20.3% of the time.
• 29th among 37 RBs with 125 carries last season in yards per carry after first contact
• 3.3 yards per carry, 54.9 rushing yards per game
• Scored fewer than 10 fantasy points in 50% of his games, averaged 15.05 PPG
They basically scored the same number of fantasy points per game, but all the underlying numbers suggest you’d much rather have Carson than Player B, right?
Then someone explain to me why Leonard Fournette (Player B above) is going 30-plus picks ahead of Carson! Carson is on a better team, with a better QB, better offense, and Fournette has missed 11 games in two years (including eight last season). Carson has missed 14 games in two years, but the majority of them came in his rookie season of 2017 (Carson played 14 games last season). Neither guy is huge in the passing game (although camp reports suggest both will be used more this season), and the Penny situation is a positive for me. Penny is going in the 12th round, will be flex-viable in his own right, and you know exactly whom to handcuff if you draft Carson. Behind Fournette, the Jags are a mess. Chris Carson is free money.
(Many) Others receiving votes: If I knew for a fact that Aaron Jones would, in fact, be free, he’d be on the full-on “love” list, but because we keep hearing running back by committee (RBBC) grumblings out of Green Bay, I’m merely mentioning him here. But man, do I love Aaron Jones. Talked him up this time last year as a must-grab even as many were ignoring him because of the two-game suspension, and he wound up as RB17 on a PPG basis. He should have finished even higher. The talent is unmistakable; he gained at least five yards on 42.9% of carries in 2018 (second-highest rate among qualified RBs), he scored on four of his six goal-to-go carries (best rate among qualified RBs) and in his eight games with at least 10 carries last season: 5.5 yards per carry and 19.1 fantasy PPG. On a per-game basis, 19.1 points would have ranked as RB9, just ahead of Joe Mixon. Free Aaron Jones indeed. … If I’m discounting Tom Brady because the Patriots are going to be more run-heavy, it makes sense I’m on their running backs. I get it, it’s always dicey trusting a Patriots running back, but only Todd Gurley had more red zone rushes last season than Sony Michel, news on his knee appears good and reports out of camp are that they are going to use him a lot more in the passing game this year. … Meanwhile, James White is the only RB with 55 or more receptions each of the past three seasons, has Brady’s trust implicitly and they are using him even more between the tackles (five rushing touchdowns for White last season, compared to two for his career prior to that). Using White between the tackles more and Michel in the passing game makes sense, as it doesn’t allow defenses to know what’s coming. Over the past two seasons, both Michel and White are seventh or better in the NFL in terms of percentage of touches that come in the red zone (minimum 200 touches). Both guys are values at their current midtier 20s ADPs. … Theo Riddick leaving the Lions means more work for Kerryon Johnson, and that’s a good thing. In the four games that Johnson received more than 15 touches last season, he averaged 18.9 PPG (that would have been good for RB9 on a PPG basis). I still worry about scoring potential with C.J. Anderson and Zach Zenner potentially vulturing goal-line work, but Johnson is a legit RB2 with RB1 upside. … We discussed this recently on the podcast, but while the (deserved) RBBC concerns about the Eagles this year have depressed the values of Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard, both are current values at their RB32 (Sanders) and RB35 (Howard) ADPs. The Eagles were eighth in red zone rushing percentage last year, they should have one of the best offensive lines in football, and as you read above in the Wentz section, Philly’s offense will be among the higher-scoring units this season. … A ninth-round pick is an easy price to pay for the upside that Derrius Guice possesses. Last season, Adrian Peterson ranked sixth in the NFL in both percentage of team’s carries (60.6%) and percentage of team’s rushing yards (58.7%), this after Guice suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the preseason. And that was a 33-year-old Peterson who hardly played in 2016 with Minnesota (three games) and wasn’t really used in New Orleans in 2017 before a brief resurgence with Arizona for six games. Very quietly, Peterson got the fifth-most rushing attempts last year while finishing as a top-20 fantasy running back. AD is there for depth, especially early as Guice comes back from his knee injury, but make no mistake: in the second half of the season, it will be the Derrius Guice show in Washington. I’d feel better if Trent Williams would show up to camp, but when I interviewed Jay Gruden, he told me he doesn’t think Guice has to come off the field on third down, as he’s a much better pass-catcher than people realize. Washington’s plan this season is likely running the hell out of the ball, don’t turn it over, play good defense and try to squeak out some wins. Guice has lead-back talent and the potential volume makes him a worthy flier in Round 9. … Whether you draft Chris Carson or not, Rashaad Penny makes a lot of sense later in drafts. Seattle is likely to run enough to support two viable fantasy RBs and if anything happens to Carson, Rashaad would be worth a lot more than a Penny. Ha! See what I did there? Ah, whatevs. We’re thousands of words into this thing, take whatever jokes you can get. … Believe it or not, the Saints have led the NFL in rushing touchdowns each of the past two years, with 49 total scores. Latavius Murray‘s appeal as a handcuff, should anything happen to Alvin Kamara, is obvious, but Murray is also just one of three RBs to score at least six rushing TDs in each of the past four seasons (Gurley and the guy Murray is replacing, Mark Ingram, are the others). I like Murray’s chances at exceeding his 12th-round ADP. … There have been a lot of jokes on the podcast and social media about my belief in Kalen Ballage. But jokes aside, he’s 6-foot-2, 237 pounds and ran a 4.46 40. Big, fast, a good pass-catcher (64 receptions his final two years at Arizona State) and all reports out of Miami are that he’s in a near-even time-split with Kenyan Drake. Frank Gore leaves 156 carries on the table from last season as he moves on, so it’s not hard to see a significant profit for Ballage, who is going late or undrafted in many leagues. … I know Royce Freeman was a disappointment last season, but now healthy and with a coaching staff that will utilize him a lot more, Freeman is being criminally underdrafted. … As you’ll soon see, I’m out on Le’Veon Bell this year, so in deeper leagues I’ll take a very late flier on Ty Montgomery, who is likely to be the main beneficiary should Bell miss any games, like he has in every season of his NFL career but one. … Another name to file away for deeper leagues is Darwin Thompson, who is yet another talented toy in Andy Reid’s playpen.
Running backs I hate in 2019
Le’Veon Bell, Jets: I don’t get it. I really don’t. Bell is going top-five overall and that’s just nuts to me. We talk all the time about being risk-averse early on, and people are taking Bell in the top five? Wha-wh-what? Do people not realize that he has played all 16 games once in his career (and that was back in 2014)? That he missed 18 games in his first five seasons prior to sitting out all of last season? That he hasn’t played football in a year? That the Steelers were a top-10 team in pace of play during Bell’s top two seasons and that the Dolphins were dead last in offensive snaps under now-Jets head coach Adam Gase? That the line in New York will be much worse than it was in Pittsburgh, when Bell ran behind one of the league’s best? And that in 2017 (the last time we saw him) there were 38 running backs with at least 150 touches and Bell ranked 34th in percentage of touches that gained 25-plus yards? That his 4.0 yards-per-carry mark was the lowest it’s been since his rookie year? That in five of the six years Gase has been an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, his teams have been 21st or worse in terms of RB receptions? That the only exception to that was the Peyton Manning 2013 season, in which Manning threw for 55 touchdowns? THAT’S the guy you’re spending a top-five pick on? Hells to the no.
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars: See Carson, Chris. What are you counting on here? It’s not health (11 missed games in two years). It’s not efficiency. Since 2017, he ranks 31st out of 36 running backs (minimum 250 carries) in yards per carry (3.69). Advanced analytics? Nope. He’s a bottom-five back for his career after first contact and has a below-average success rate when his team has more blockers than the defense has rushers. The only thing you can count on with Fournette is volume. Insane volume. If he’s on the field, of course. It’s not just injuries: Remember the game he got benched because he missed a team photo? Ugh. The Jags brought in Nick Foles this offseason to stabilize their passing game and that could go either way. Maybe they are a better offense and he gets more scoring opportunities or they find success with a passing game and Fournette’s high volume drops some. Regardless, there’s uncertainty here and RB12 is too high a price for a guy with so many concerns. If you’re chasing high-volume-but-risky RBs, I’d much rather take Chris Carson three or four rounds later.
Derrick Henry, Titans: Two first names is, indeed, always a crowd pleaser, but you know what isn’t? Pretty much everything that isn’t Weeks 14-17 last season. He was bonkers in that stretch but other than that? Yeesh. He averaged 3.29 yards per carry in his 16 most recent games prior to the Week 14-17 explosion last season and has never averaged even one reception per game in a season (his career high came last season, with 15 receptions in 16 games). So he offers nothing in the passing game, which means you need volume and scoring. I buy the volume — the coaching staff is saying all the right things about making him the focal point of the offense and the Titans definitely improved their offensive line. But do we think Marcus Mariota is any good? Do we think this offense will suddenly sing this year? They need to be close or winning for Henry to do his thing, and since 2017, the Titans are a bottom-10 offense in red zone drives, points per game and number of offensive snaps with a lead of a touchdown or more.
The upcoming schedule does him no favors. The Titans play nine games this season against a top-12 scoring offense from 2018, something that could make committing to the run for four quarters a bit difficult. Henry is being drafted as RB15, ahead of three-down RBs who will have passing-game involvement such as Josh Jacobs, Kerryon Johnson and Damien Williams, among others. He’s a fine low-end RB2, but fourth round? Before guys like Brandin Cooks or Stefon Diggs, not to mention the RBs I just listed? Way too rich for my blood.
Tarik Cohen, Bears: He is what he is, and that’s fine. But the fact that his ADP is up more than 20 slots from last season seems funky to me (he’s going ahead of his teammate, David Montgomery). Yes, Jordan Howard is now in Philadelphia. And yes, Cohen finished last season as RB11 in total points (RB15 on a per-game basis). But the Bears brought in an underrated Mike Davis and drafted Montgomery with the 73rd overall pick in April, seemingly to make sure that Cohen’s role doesn’t change and maybe even goes down a bit. When Louis Riddick was on The Fantasy Show on ESPN+ during a bold predictions segment, he said he expects Montgomery to be a huge part of the Bears’ passing attack this year.
Best-case scenario is Cohen’s passing-game usage stays the same, although there’s an argument to be made it could go down a bit, but either way, he is likely to see his touchdown rate normalize. In 2017, Cohen scored once every 46.7 touches. In 2018, he more than cut that number in half (21.3). Given the roster adjustments and Cohen’s limited use in the red zone (36th in red zone touches per game last season), I see him finishing much closer to where he did in 2017 (RB29 in total points, RB41 in points per game) than last year’s top-15 campaign.
LeSean McCoy, Bills: I could give you all sorts of negative stats on McCoy — how inefficient he was last season, how unproductive he was, how he now is sharing the backfield with Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. But the guy ruined the ending of “Avengers” the night it opened for the almost 1 million people who follow him on Twitter. He did so in three different posts. Millions of people waited 10 years for that movie. I held in the secret that I was in the flick for two years, yet McCoy couldn’t keep his big mouth shut for one day? #%$* LeSpoiler McCoy.
Wide receivers I love in 2019
Odell Beckham Jr., Browns: You might think he’s an obvious name, and certainly there’s no shortage of people jumping on the Browns bandwagon. But I have Beckham as a top-eight pick overall and my No. 3 wide receiver, yet he’s currently going in the middle of the second round on ESPN. Here’s the thing on OBJ: He has a legit shot to be the best WR in fantasy, and given the competition, that’s saying something. Pretty sure you don’t need me to give you stats to tell you OBJ is good, but here’s one anyway: Since he entered the NFL in 2014, he’s averaging 20.6 fantasy PPG. Only Antonio Brown has been better in that time frame. And that was done with Eli Manning as his QB, whose TD percentage was 31st the past three years. Now he gets Baker Mayfield, whose TD percentage last year was 11th best. Without Beckham. I’m most excited for Mayfield’s deep ball. From Week 9 on (when Freddie Kitchens took over the offense), Mayfield led the NFL in deep completions per game, ranked fifth in deep completion percentage and seventh in deep TDs (just for reference, that was ahead of Mahomes in completion percentage and tied in TDs). And again — Mayfield did that without Beckham, who makes any QB better. It’s going to be a fun-as-hell connection to watch this year. Health is the only thing that could derail Beckham this year. Massive, massive upside.
Julian Edelman, Patriots: Yes, New England is going run-heavy, but the Pats are still going to throw some, and when they do, more often than not it’s going to this guy. Loosey-goosey math here, but just go with it for a second: In Edelman’s past 16 regular-season games without Gronk he has 114 catches (180 targets) for 1,374 yards and three TDs. You’d expect the touchdowns to come up some (1.67 red zone targets per game in 2018, only Zach Ertz averaged more), but even if they don’t, those numbers would have made him WR10 last season, ahead of Stefon Diggs, Keenan Allen and T.Y. Hilton, among others. The most consistent WR in fantasy the past three years, per Tristan’s H. Cockcroft’s consistency ratings, Edelman is primed for a massive year as the only pass-catcher with a significant connection to Brady currently on the team (not counting RB James White). The postseason showed what Edelman is capable of (26 catches for 388 yards in those three games) and this year, you’ll see more of the same.
Robert Woods, Rams: I like all the Rams receivers and their similar ADPs make sense, but I want to highlight Woods, who never seems to get a lot of hype, but all he does is produce. From Weeks 3-16 last season, Woods was WR7, trailing only Davante Adams, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Adam Thielen and Tyreek Hill during that stretch. Not a bad list to be on, and that was with a Rams offense that was in flux at times: the Cooper Kupp injury, the declining health of Todd Gurley and the occasional reemergence of bad Jared Goff. Woods was a poor man’s Adams, as he tied for the most games of 70-plus yards receiving (12). He was able to produce regardless of what was going on around him. A top-10 receiver in Tristan’s 2018 consistency ratings, Woods was quietly the 11th-best WR in fantasy last season. And everything points to another big year in one of the NFL’s best offenses, while his sixth-round ADP points to another year as a nice value.
Chris Godwin, Buccaneers: As required by fantasy analyst law, I am high on Godwin this season. (I’m actually very high — once again — on the Tampa Bay offense.) Godwin has flashed plenty of talent in his first two seasons in the league, and now he will finally have a consistent every-week role. Consider that Godwin still finished as a top-30 WR in 2018 despite being outside the top 50 at the position in routes run. Now, the departures of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries have freed up 177 targets, and new head coach Bruce Arians has already come out and said he wants to use Godwin in the Larry Fitzgerald role in his offense. Godwin tied for seventh in the NFL in end zone targets last season and I expect even more of the same this year. I’m buying, and Godwin’s ADP is going to be much higher in next year’s drafts.
Others receiving votes: Podcast listeners know I’ve loved my little Cooper Kupp since the preseason of his rookie year, and this season is no different. There’s obviously a little bit of risk here with Kupp coming off a torn ACL, but I actually think that’s baked into the ADP already. If you remove the game in which Kupp was injured, he would have been WR11 on a PPG basis last season. Kupp was also fifth among all qualified WRs in yards per target (10.9) and looks fully healthy and raring to go in camp so far. … I realize a lot of camp reports are drooling over Curtis Samuel, but gimme DJ Moore, whose eighth-round ADP is certainly reasonable. During the Cam Newton era (2011-18), the top Panthers pass-catcher (WR/TE) has averaged 7.6 targets per game. Small sample size, of course, but in Moore’s three games with more than seven targets he put up 20-315-1 (19.4 PPG). That would have been WR7 on a per-game basis last season. … Last season Mike Williams became just the second WR in the past decade to score double-digit TDs on fewer than 45 receptions. Now, I obviously don’t expect Williams to score on 23% of his catches like he did last season, but you have to believe he’s going to see a lot more than 66 targets in 2019. He already has a defined red zone role, and with the added volume he should see after the departure of Tyrell Williams, it’s easy to see the former high-first-round pick making the jump into the WR2 range. … Over the past two seasons (playoffs included), Nick Foles has completed 70.1% of his slot passes with a 3-1 TD/INT rate, compared with 65.6% completion rate and a 1.5-1 TD/INT rate to all other spots on the field. Gimme some Dede Westbrook, who was eighth or better in the NFL in slot targets and yards last season. …. From Weeks 2-15 last season, Tyler Boyd was the 11th-best receiver in fantasy and never went more than two consecutive games without scoring a TD. His numbers actually went down a bit when A.J. Green was hurt, but he’s got a new head coach, and Andy Dalton is back healthy, so I like the upside in the eighth round. … You know I’m high on Kyler Murray and that extends to his young receiver, Christian Kirk, who in a lost year had at least 77 yards or a touchdown in five of 12 games. They love him in Arizona. … Geronimo Allison was a top-30 WR over the first four weeks of 2018 prior to getting hurt, with at least 64 yards in all of those games. The breakout that was supposed to happen last year is coming this year. And if I’m wrong, he’s only costing you a 15th-round pick this year. … The Steelers were second in pass percentage last season, lost 209 targets when Antonio Brown and Jesse James left the team and have been raving about Donte Moncrief (who is still just 26) in camp. … I interviewed Anthony Miller at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere last year and I read him our ESPN.com fantasy projections, which included him scoring four touchdowns. He just shook his head. That’s too low, he said. I asked what we should have suggested and he said eight would be a good number for his first year. He ended up with seven. In general, a player makes the biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2, and given Mitchell Trubisky’s penchant for throwing to the middle of the field and Miller’s talent, his ADP of WR55 is insane. … No one in your draft will go “oooh” or “aaah” when he’s taken, but given that Emmanuel Sanders (amazingly) looks fully healthy, he is a steal in Round 12 as WR41. … We know Josh Allen likes to chuck it deep. You know who likes to catch it deep? John Brown, whose career average of 15 yards per catch is 18th best among 113 qualified wideouts. Remember, in nine weeks with Joe Flacco as his QB last season, Brown was the 22nd-best WR in fantasy (WR31 on a PPG basis). He’s going as WR77 right now. … Speaking of deep-league guys, some of my favorite such players in PPR are a couple of slot guys: Hunter Renfrow and Trey Quinn. … Some other deeper-league guys I like include David Moore in Seattle (averaged 17.2 PPG during Weeks 5-8 last season, and DK Metcalf is not a proven commodity), Jake Kumerow in Green Bay (someone who has caught the eye of Aaron Rodgers), San Francisco’s 36th overall pick Deebo Samuel (4.48 40-yard dash, 39-inch vertical) and Rashard Higgins in Cleveland, who will be starting opposite Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Higgins averaged 12.44 PPG last season when getting at least four targets. Last year, 12.44 points a game would have been WR32.
Wide receivers I hate in 2019
Antonio Brown, Raiders: Where’s my Bitter Berry? So, Brown has been someone I’ve been fading all offseason. One of best wide receiver talents in football, but the move from Big Ben to Derek Carr is an obvious downgrade (last season Carr ranked dead last of 33 qualified QBs in air yards per attempt, and his completion percentage on deep passes ranked 24th). This year he has a serious upgrade in talent, but still, more than 40% of AB’s fantasy points the past two years came on deep passes. Then you have the connection: Ben and AB had such chemistry after years of playing together and that won’t be there with Carr. Not with Brown missing training camp … with frozen feet! I was all set to have AB on the hate list and then the “frozen feet” thing happens … and then the “I’m not playing football unless I can use my old helmet thing happens” and now everyone is fading AB after an offseason where folks were talking him up. Very bitter. Yes, I have managed to make a situation where the franchise player and highest-paid WR in football is threatening to hold out all year all about myself. It’s a gift. Anyway, even if the feet and helmet issue resolve themselves, there is no way you can justify taking him in the top 10 of receivers. I mean, if this is the drama going on now, in the preseason, can you imagine what it would be like if Oakland started out 2-5 or something? Not at a top-15 ADP, no sir.
A.J. Green, Bengals: Where’s my Bitter Berry? So, Green is also someone I’ve been fading all offseason. I faded him last year because I was worried he couldn’t stay healthy, and of course, that’s what happened. So I was prepared to fade him again because he’s 31 years old now and has missed at least six games in two of the past three seasons. I’m no Stephania Bell, but I’m pretty sure you don’t get healthier as you get older. Unless you’re Tom Brady. Anyone know if A.J. drinks kale smoothies? So yeah, I’m all set to talk up my concerns on his health, and then, before I could publish this article, he gets hurt again and now everyone is fading him again. Did I just double down and make A.J. Green’s ankle injury about me? Yes, I did, dammit. Injuries aside, the other concerning thing is his QB. Maybe new head coach Zac Taylor fixes him, but over the past two seasons, Andy Dalton ranks no better than 27th in completion percentage, deep completion percentage or yards per deep attempt, none of which, you know, helps Green. Did you know Week 10 of 2017 was the last time Green had a 40-plus yard reception? Look, when he’s out there, he’s still going to get a massive target share and he’s talented, so he’ll obviously produce. But he’s going to miss games, there’s definite risk here of re-injury and I’m not sure his ADP has dropped far enough to account for that.
Jarvis Landry, Browns: Baker, Beckham, you know I’m on the Browns this year and we haven’t even mentioned how Chubb is going to eat, but I’m worried about Jarvis, which sounds like a bad BBC sitcom from the ’90s. With the exception of one glorious season in Miami, he’s never been a big touchdown guy, instead relying on volume for his fantasy value. I don’t see the volume issues changing — Cleveland was just 15th in pass percentage after Kitchens took over last season — and in the four seasons in which Beckham has played at least 12 games, none of his pass-catcher teammates (WR/TE) have averaged 60 receiving yards or 4.5 catches per game. I also don’t see the touchdowns suddenly showing up, as Landry’s red zone target share under Kitchens was 14.3% (tied with teammates Nick Chubb and Antonio Callaway for 72nd in the NFL in that stretch), and that’s before Odell showed up. Landry will be a key cog for Cleveland NFL-wise, but fantasy-wise you’re looking at an ex-volume receiver who doesn’t project as a volume option and doesn’t come with high touchdown equity. That’s not — what’s the word? — ideal.
Calvin Ridley, Falcons: Ridley is a talented player. On a good offense with a good quarterback. I interviewed him once. He was very nice. So what is he doing here? Because of where he is going, as WR26, right around guys like Chris Godwin, Mike Williams, Tyler Boyd, DJ Moore and others, all of whom I like a lot more. Ridley scored 30% of his fantasy points in two big games last season, when he scored five touchdowns in Weeks 3 and 4 (against Cincy and New Orleans). If you’re drafting him in this area, you are banking on a huge increase in target share, because the TD total is very likely regressing. While he was targeted on just 20.3% of his routes (43rd among qualified WRs), he managed the seventh-highest fantasy points per target among qualified WRs. Despite just five end zone targets all season, he scored 10 touchdowns. None of the scoring is sustainable. Which is a problem, because in the nine games in which he didn’t score a TD, he averaged just 6.1 fantasy PPG. With Mohamed Sanu still there and a (in theory) healthy Devonta Freeman, along with a continuing-to-emerge Austin Hooper, there are too many viable passing game options to assume Ridley’s target share increases enough to compensate for the scoring regression.
Corey Davis, Titans: I love, love, love Davis’ talent. I feel the opposite, however, about his quarterback. Marcus Mariota has just 24 touchdowns to 23 interceptions the past two years, as he’s often injured and has been largely ineffective when playing. Which is why it makes sense that Tennessee wants to continue its running ways with Derrick Henry being the focal point. (Titans were 29th in pass percentage last season). So a low-volume passing attack that suddenly has a lot of mouths to feed beyond Davis: Delanie Walker is back, Adam Humphries signed a big deal to play the slot and talented rookie A.J. Brown is there as well. Davis had just three games with more than 62 receiving yards last season, so while the talent is obvious, unless he gets a new team or quarterback, I prefer guys like Dede Westbrook, Christian Kirk, Emmanuel Sanders, Donte Moncrief and Dante Pettis, all of whom are going in the same area.
Tight ends I love in 2019
Evan Engram, Giants: Over the past two seasons, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder with a 4.42 40 time has played in 14 games without Odell Beckham Jr. In those games, he is averaging about five receptions per game on almost eight targets a game, 60 yards and 13.8 fantasy points per game. Last season, 13.8 PPG would have been TE5 on a per-game basis (behind just The Big Three and Eric Ebron). But what about Saquon, you ask? Glad you did. Last year, there were four games with no Beckham but with Barkley. Engram had 75-plus receiving yards in each of them and averaged 16.2 points per game. That would have been TE4 on a per-game basis last season. With Golden Tate facing a four-game suspension and Sterling Shepard banged up, Engram should command a heavy target share early on and should ride that early success as a scoring threat on a team that doesn’t have a lot of them.
Vance McDonald, Steelers: McDonald saw a career-high 72 targets last season and very quietly turned in a top-10 fantasy season. A very tough tackle, as Chris Conte found out the hard way, McDonald led tight ends in yards per catch after first contact. In fact he averaged 34% more yards after contact than second place O.J. Howard. If you play a little loosey-goosey math and combine the stats of now-departed Jesse James and McDonald last season, this role averaged 1.96 fantasy points per target. For comparison, Travis Kelce averaged 1.98 fantasy points per target and George Kittle was at 1.88. With Antonio Brown also moving on, there are 207 targets from last year up for grabs and other than JuJu Smith-Schuster, McDonald is the only other Steeler pass-catcher to have spent significant time with Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers ranked eighth in TE targets last season and no QB has thrown more passes to the end zone over the past three seasons than Big Ben. McDonald is my TE7 this year and I’m worried I’m not high enough on him. #VanceSZN indeed.
Darren Waller, Raiders: With Jared Cook moving on, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound former college WR who ran a 4.46 40 at the combine now gets a chance at a starring role in an offense that last season was seventh or better in both overall TE targets and red zone TE targets. Now sure, with Antonio Brown (maybe?), Tyrell Williams and Josh Jacobs this offense will look a lot different, but the opportunity should be there for Waller to be a strong TE2 with some upside. Don’t believe me? Will you listen to Antonio Brown? When I interviewed AB a few weeks ago (before the feet and the helmet stuff), he said about Waller: “Big, fast, explosive guy. Catch and run. Can run like a receiver. He’s tall like Calvin Johnson. He’s a freaky guy.” My TE15 this year, Waller is currently being drafted as TE33 on ESPN. COME ON, PEOPLE.
Others receiving votes: As our player card for Jack Doyle notes, “During the six games both he and Eric Ebron were active, Doyle ran 151 routes and was targeted 33 times, compared to 101 routes and 22 targets for Ebron. Doyle posted a 26-245-2 line and was fantasy’s No. 6 tight end during those six weeks.” Ebron’s touchdowns are going to regress (you’ll never guess who is coming up in “hate”) and Doyle will continue to be a high-floor PPR value, going insanely low at TE18. … After three straight years of being a top-five fantasy tight end for Delanie Walker before losing his season to injury last year, Walker is expected to be fully healthy for the start of the season and is the one player who has shown consistent chemistry with Marcus Mariota. An unexciting but solid and likely profitable pick at his current ADP of TE11 in the 12th round. … I know, I know. You’ve heard it before, but Jordan Reed is having a great camp. Health, not talent, is always the issue with Reed. But devoid of playmakers in the Redskins passing game, I’d expect Reed to get a very healthy target share for whomever is QB for Washington. And he’s cheaper than he’s ever been, going in the 16th round as TE17. Come on. He’s very much worth the flier at that price.
Tight ends I hate in 2019
Zach Ertz, Eagles: Still my No. 3 tight end, he’s a very valuable tight end. I’m not questioning his talent. I am, however, worried about all the other talent around him. There’s a lot of it. In the Draft-Day Manifesto, I talked about how historic the performance was (and how unlikely it was to repeat). Kelce, Kittle and Ertz are still my big three, but I have them all lower in my overall ranks than where they are going in drafts, and of the three, I have the least confidence in Ertz repeating his numbers from last season. Remember the lesson of the Manifesto: What’s most likely to happen? Last year, Ertz had three games of at least 27 points. In the three seasons prior, he had one such game, total. What’s most likely to happen this year? In the prior three seasons, he had 74, 75 and 78 receptions, then last season he had 116. What’s most likely to happen this year? Last season, Ertz had 29.4% of all the receptions from Carson Wentz (for the entire season, only DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas had a higher rate). With Dallas Goedert emerging, the addition to DeSean Jackson and Miles Sanders, getting Darren Sproles, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor back, plus talented rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside, it’s just hard to see Ertz getting that kind of volume.
Eric Ebron, Colts: You already know how I feel after reading the Jack Doyle portion, but since we are in the mood after Ertz, let’s play another game of what’s most likely to happen? Dude had 13 touchdowns last season on 66 catches. For the rest of his career, he’s had 11 touchdowns on 186 catches. What’s most likely to happen this year? I already gave the stats when both Doyle and Ebron were on the field together last year, so … there’s that. I mean, the guy had a rushing touchdown last season. Come on! We know the touchdowns are coming down, so the only way to combat that is increased volume, and with a healthy Doyle, an emerging Mo Alie-Cox (who should be on your radar) and the additions of 6-foot-4, 225-pound Devin Funchess and 2019 draftee Parris Campbell, that’s not happening.
David Njoku, Browns: Talented player, and he will have some big games this year, but I worry they will be few and far between. Four games of over 15 points last season, but 10 games with single-digit totals and that fantasy roller coaster is likely to continue given middle-of-the-pack passing volume and lots of weapons. From Week 13-17 last season, the Browns averaged a league-high 305.4 passing yards per game, yet Njoku didn’t catch more than three passes in any of those five contests. Njoku was fifth in TE targets from Week 1-8 last season, but once Kitchens showed up, Njoku dropped to 13th in TE targets from Weeks 9-17. Small sample size, sure, but it’s all we have to go on, and with Beckham showing up, do you really think Njoku’s volume will increase?
Jimmy Graham, Packers: Make no mistake, it was a great run, but last year I had Graham on my “hate” list, as a bunch of other people were taking him in the top 10 and arguing he was a perfect fit for the Packers’ offense. Well. Graham finished as just TE 20 on a per-game-basis last season, and he had just three games with more than 55 receiving yards (and none after Week 6). His 14.5% red zone target share was his lowest since he was a rookie in 2010, and that was with a ton of injuries in the receiving corps for Green Bay. Now the Packers’ young wideouts are ready to step up into a bigger role, plus the Pack added one of my favorite players coming out of college this year, tight end Jace Sternberger. I grew up in College Station, Texas, and watch Texas A&M games religiously. Sternberger will be on field sooner than later, further hurting Graham’s already declining target share. Always an injury risk, Graham is currently going ahead of higher-upside tight ends such as Kyle Rudolph (last year’s TE7!) and the aforementioned Doyle and Reed, among others. Nope.
And there you have it! Love/Hate 2019 is in the books. A reminder that these will change as the preseason continues on — as of this writing, we have just completed the first week of preseason games. Stay tuned to the podcast, the ESPN+ show, my ranks and my social feed for updates. Get out there and mock draft, keep reading, watching and researching. Remember — whatever it takes.
Matthew Berry, The Talented Mr. Roto, loves you 3,000. He is the creator of RotoPass.com.