Fantasy Football Stock Report for NFL Week 1

Alex DunlapContributor ISeptember 5, 2012

Fantasy Football Stock Report for NFL Week 1

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    This is it. The NFL season is here, and we are kicking things off with a good old-fashioned evaluation of our portfolios. 

    Everyone at this point has high hopes of soaring fantasy stocks and white-picket championship fences.

    The American Dream is not made overnight, though. This will take work—and research. 

    This is the fantasy football stock report for Week 1. 

STOCK UP: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Maurice Jones-Drew has ended his ill-advised holdout, and last year's rushing leader should be surging back up draft boards now. 

    Speculation ran wild during the preseason about what would come of this situation, and there were generally three schools of thought:

    1) MJD would end his holdout, return to practice and return to form as one of fantasy's most dependable rocks in 2012.

    2) MJD would end his holdout, return to practice and lose reps to Rashad Jennings, whose stock has been drastically over-inflated in Jones-Drew's absence. These pundits generally also believe that the holdout during a year that involved a coaching and scheme change will effect his play on the field, similar to Chris Johnson in 2011. 

    3) MJD would not end his holdout and only return to play six games in 2012, registering 2012 as a year towards free agency and completely screwing fantasy owners who rolled the dice on him as their RB1 or elected not to take an elite QB in favor of rostering him as their RB2. 

    Most people will tell you that Door No. 2 is the pathway that leads us into this NFL season when it comes to MJD. 

    And here we are, coming into Week 1, and reports from Jacksonville are spouting off passed-along coachspeak that a healthy MJD will back up Jennings in the season opener versus Minnesota and be relegated to third-down duty. 

    Let me clarify this, because it is being reported using confusing terminology all over the place. 

    We know that when asked about MJD during his holdout, new Jags head coach Mike Mularkey said that he wasn't worried about Jones-Drew's ability to carry the ball and to commit to his running assignment. He said that it would be the pass-blocking and protection schemes that would be "new" to Jones-Drew and needed to be learned.

    So they want to play last season's leading rusher exclusively on third downs now? After one week of learning the protections? Yeah, right.

    This quote from Mularkey on SI.com is very telling: "That's kind of the way the system works, yes. Whoever starts, the other one will handle the third downs."

    Jennings has looked better than expected in MJD's absence, but this means one thing: In this system, there will be a primary runner, and there will be a satellite-type, situational runner to change the pace. It isn't necessarily a third-down back as much a situational back. Basically, it's a backup to spell the starter. 

    Think Michael Turner and Jaquizz Rodgers. That is how Mularkey utilizes RBs. He loves a lead runner.

    Anyone saying that Rashad Jennings will be the Michael Turner of that equation within the new system is simply wrong.

    MJD is getting a small slap on the wrist by (supposedly) being relegated to scrub duty in the opener, but very soon, Rashad Jennings will fall back into the depths of fantasy obscurity as a back who only sees the field to give the lead horse a breather. 

    I would not be one bit surprised to see the Jags' fake "changing of the guard" at RB take place as early as halfway through the second quarter of Sunday's game versus the Vikings.

    Those who took MJD in the third or fourth rounds of their recent drafts—while others were spooked—have seen their stock plummet before surging back to near-record highs. 

STOCK DOWN: Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Please see previous slide.

    Jennings is a serviceable NFL back, but he was never deserving of the sixth- and seventh-round average draft position that his stock soared to when being drafted by advantageous fantasy newbies and spooked MJD owners who decided they needed to reach super early for his handcuff. 

    It turns out that the Jennings camp has been reporting false projections on their 2012 pro-forma this whole time. The Fantasy Communications Coalition (FCC) has seized their assets while they are being investigated for artificially inflating their stock in an Evan Royster-esque Ponzi scheme. 

    I like buying when stock is down, but I would never buy in this situation. Two reasons:

    1) Trading right now is ridiculous. You drafted your roster for a reason. In Weeks 1-4, play your studs and hope you come into the round of Week 4 trading action from a position of strength. This is when the average-to-good players in your league whose teams are 1-3 or 0-4 will become antsy and start accepting flimsy package trades in exchange for their studs. 

    2) Why would I ever "buy" on MJD's backup when MJD is healthy? 

STOCK UP: Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin shocked the world on Tuesday by not ruling out the possibility of Rashard Mendenhall playing in the season opener against Denver.

    Mendenhall tore his ACL just over eight months ago and has looked "incredible" in practice since being medically cleared, teammate Brett Keisel told Jim Wexell (h/t NFL.com).

    This means two things to me:

    1) Marc Sessler of NFL.com notes that this is Mike Tomlin "pulling levers"—the shaft of the NFL putting out false tells. I would be absolutely shocked if Mendenhall even dressed for Week 1. 

    2) Mendenhall is closer to a return, it appears, than many anticipated. That is important. 

    Mendenhall is no fantasy jewel, but make no mistake, when healthy, he can be a very key contributor to any squad. The Steelers have no back on their roster of Mendenhall's pedigree and athleticism.

    There's no way that the Steelers as an organization were in any way comfortable heading into the 2012 season with the starting RB position being up in the air between Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. That sounds like a Vegas magic-show lineup. 

    Mendenhall is one year removed from gaining 1,273 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns in an NFL season. When you are that guy and you are healthy, you start in front of players like Redman and Dwyer. That is not rocket science.

    Mendenhall appears to be much healthier than expected, and his owners can look forward to the increasing likelihood that their RB4 or RB5 might make a push to start on their roster or provide valuable trade bait in the first few games of the season. 

STOCK DOWN: Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    Roddy White is currently fantasy football's most reliable WR. White's falling stock would indicate that many fantasy owners are growing weary of the near-lisztomania-level love that is being spout out for his cohort in the receiving game, a very sick man—Julio Jones. 

    People are sheep; don't follow them off a cliff or drink any weird Kool-Aid.

    Julio Jones is not Calvin Johnson.

    Jones did display his best Megatron impersonation this preseason, though. When you go for 109 yards and a touchdown in one quarter of play to start things off, that raises many an eyebrow. Especially against the Ravens' first-team defense, who had both of their starting corners burned at least once by Jones in merely a quarter.

    Roddy White's ADP is currently 27, while Jones' is 20. The reason this stock drop is worth reporting is because these players come off the board at a critical time for value in this year's draft—at the Round 2-Round 3 turn for 12-team leagues. It is at a point (No. 20) where DeMarco Murray or Maurice Jones-Drew may still be available.

    I would much rather come out of a fantasy draft with MJD or DeMarco Murray and Roddy White than Trent Richardson and Julio Jones. 

STOCK UP, Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota Vikings

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    I have been like Jim Kramer on Mad Money yelling about Toby Gerhart, and it looks like those who listened might be in line for a nice early return. 

    When I was at the Senior Bowl watching the North Squad practices, I noticed (now Atlanta Falcons) FB Bradie Ewing being used in a variety of different sets—catching passes out of the backfield, lining up and motioning out of a flexed-TE look, almost H-backish in nature.

    The Minnesota Vikings staff coached the North Squad, and after practice, I asked a member of the organization what he thought about Ewing. He said he liked him and that they were using him in the "Toby Gerhart" kind of role.

    When asked if they were running so many plays like that because Adrian Peterson was hurt and if they expected to lean on Gerhart more in 2012, he kind of laughed and said that whether or not Peterson had been hurt, it wouldn't have mattered. They were looking at more ways to get the ball in Gerhart's hands, and he brings a different dimension to the offense. 

    Gerhart's stock is up right now because Peterson's availability to play in Week 1 versus Jacksonville is becoming murkier by the day. I don't see it as a one-week high, though. I think the stock will continue to rise, and if Gerhart is by some miracle on your waiver wire, I would navigate from this page to your league home page and snipe him immediately. 

    Peterson is probably still the best RB in the league. No one has seen him during real in-season NFL gameplay just nine months off ACL surgery, though. Everyone knows it would be wise to ease him back in every reasonable way that does not compromise your team's goal of winning.

    The Vikings believe in Gerhart, and I think this is a situation like Kansas City or Houston, where in many weeks you could even start both runners. Even if Peterson is healthy, they'll both be useful. 

STOCK DOWN: Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told Sirius XM's The Blitz with Adam Schein and Rich Gannon Tuesday that Mike Wallace would be on a "snap count" for the Steelers regular-season opener at Denver. 

    Tomlin said that conditioning is not his worry and that "Mike is a guy who is in top physical condition 12 months out of the year." He went on to say that the small concern he did have was with Wallace's adaptation to a playbook that has been tinkered with by new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

    Although Tomlin said that Wallace has shown that he is truly up to speed with the new design and terminology of certain sets and assignments, he did so with a qualifier: "Getting it right in the classroom and in meetings isn't the same as doing it on the field." 

    It doesn't help Wallace's case that fellow WR Antonio Brown is a locker-room favorite and an obvious favorite of the staff. After all, Brown was the WR who got the big contract extension this offseason while Wallace was opining publicly for his own. Brown has a similar skill set to Wallace, and he's a major red flag when when reviewing Wallace's prospectus for his 2012 initial public offering. 

    Wallace is still a burner. He will get you 10 fantasy points per week in standard leagues 53 percent of the time and 15 points 37 percent of the time. That is dependability that comes with his obvious upside as an over-the-top threat. 

    I just hate hearing "snap count," though, and it makes me even more nervous that he may be in the dog house with Coach Tomlin. You don't put your stars on a "snap count" in a game versus Peyton Manning, at home, in his debut as a Bronco. Manning has more to prove in this game than any in recent history.

    Big players make big plays in big games. They are not held back. 

STOCK UP: Wide Receivers Facing the Cleveland Browns

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    In fantasy football, playing the matchups is a time-tested key to success. Every week, I make this tool which outlines matchup rankings positionally.

    Since the most recent data we have about how defenses matched up against fantasy opponents comes from 2011, I have an algorithm that I use for projecting matchups early in the season.

    They don't account for system, personnel and scheme changes. I create "coverage personnel variables" for each team that I input into this algorithm to defray the possibility that my matchup ranking is based solely on what happened last season. You can't be reactive in fantasy; you will lose. 

    So for WR matchups, I make sure and use my WRCP (wide receiver coverage personnel) variable as a relatively substantial input into the overall function. Boiled down, this is a weighted variable that I create by averaging QB passer rating against each individual player on the defense who would generally guard a WR (the starting CBs, FS, SS and nickel corner).

    Joe Haden, the best player in the Browns defensive backfield, will be suspended for four games. Whether he plays in Week 1 is still up in the air as an appeal could string out the process. They will have to be relying for four games on Buster Skrine, who is nowhere near a player of Haden's caliber. 

    When averaged without Joe Haden in the equation, the overall passer rating for opposing QBs in my WRCP jumps almost five points. Not to mention that Haden is a master of making man coverage look like zone until the last minute and vice versa.

    All these things add up over the course of a game to create Haden Island. With the news of this suspension, it is good news for anyone who has stock in those throwing or receiving against the Browns defensive backfield. 

STOCK DOWN: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

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    Don't kill me for this, Patriots nation.

    Rob Gronkowski might still be the second-best TE in the league. The good news is that his only competition for that honor is also a Patriot. 

    Every report I have gotten from Patriots camp has seemingly included a phrase that goes something like this: "Aaron Hernandez is going to be the guy this year."

    RosterWatch's director of pro scouting, Mike Loyko, was in attendance at Patriots training camp and is a Boston sports journalist extraordinaire. He is also a huge Patriots homer and lead scout for NEPatriotsDraft.com.

    I asked him how he felt about the prospect of Gronkowski's stock falling as a fantasy prospect, to which he responded:

    I don't think it's about Gronkowski not being the player he is, but (Hernandez) is almost replacing Wes Welker as a versatile weapon on offense. He's such a red-zone threat and a big guy; he's going to score touchdowns; he's going to get a thousand yards. 

    (Hernandez is) such an unusual player; the way (Patriots OC Josh) McDaniels is going to use him is to utilize his versatility. He lines up everywhere. He lines up in the slot, Z, flexed-out tight-end, tight end, in the backfield. I wouldn't put it past them to line him up in the X in some sets. 

    From what I saw, talking to beat writers that have been there all training camp, he's the No. 1 option. There's a lot of room for improvement in his last year's numbers for Hernandez. Gronk's were so other-worldly that you have to expect them to come down a little. You have to remember that Hernandez is only 22 years old; he came in (to the NFL) at 19. He's a full four years younger than Jimmy Graham. Crazy. 

    Commitment to the TE in the Patriots 2012 playbook is evident in their personnel moves. They have two of the top four tight ends in the league, and they keep bringing in others to work out—Visanthe Shiancoe early in camp, Bo Scaife for a while, Daniel Fells, now Kellen Winslow. They want an above-average, second-team player backing up each tight end. 

    Bill Belichick is always ahead of the curve. When everyone switches to the 3-4, he goes back to the 4-3—and vice versa. Who can even keep up? He is, as a coach and personnel manager, the type of person that we should all aim to be like as fantasy managers. 

    Right now, the NFL can be exploited via a versatile tight end. Aaron Hernandez may be the most versatile of them all, and he is just now coming into his own as an NFL player. Gronkowski's stock is down for good reason. 

STOCK UP: Robert Turbin, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told RosterWatch at the combine that he was looking for a runner to complement Marshawn Lynch.

    He basically said he felt that keeping Lynch in tip-top shape was of great importance to the club and that a complementary piece to serve situationally was of definite interest in the 2012 draft.

    It had me dreaming of a "thunder and lightning" combo featuring the likes of Isaiah Pead or David Wilson coupled with Lynch.

    What Carroll decided to do was make it "thunder and thunder." He likes it when his running backs make earthquakes occur, and he loves it when it rains celebratory Skittles. Carroll drafted the man I call "Beast Mode Jr." in Robert Turbin.

    Lynch has been out with back spasms since Week 2 of the preseason. The news came out today that his status is uncertain for a would-be dream matchup with the Arizona Cardinals for Week 1. If Turbin gets the call, it could be a very nice first week in the NFL for the young man and his fantasy owners—at least the ones who didn't leave him on their bench. 

    Back spasms are nothing new to Lynch, and he played through them last season. Still, it is what Carroll said that sticks with me. He loves Lynch and wants to keep him healthy. Turbin has used his time in the preseason to carve out a niche that may carry with it a heavier load than many are expecting in 2012. 

STOCK DOWN: Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Vernon Davis is a man with whom former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary couldn't win. 

    Apparently, fantasy owners are feeling the same way. Although Davis is thought of as one of the league's elite at the TE position, he was drafted in 2012 in a TE "drop-off tier" that featured him and Jermichael Finley after Aaron Hernandez and Antonio Gates. 

    I see the reasoning. Despite Davis' postseason heroics in 2011, things have changed in the Bay Area. The 49ers have addressed their receiving corps in what looks like an episode of "Extreme Roster Makeover" with host Jim Harbaugh.

    These changes include Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and a first-round draft pick in A.J Jenkins. Throw those options in with returning players like Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams, and it starts looking like a situation that will spread the ball out in a matter too thin to support any solid TE dependability. 

    If you drafted Davis, good luck. You bought stock while it was low, but it still might not have been the bargain you were hoping for.