Fantasy Football 2014: How Changing Teams Will Impact These Fantasy Stars
When a former fantasy football stud joins a new team, there can be a number of outcomes that affect that player’s value going forward, for better or worse.
Predicting how a player will adapt to a new offensive scheme and how their role will change from seasons past will help determine where they should go in drafts.
What’s more vital to one’s fantasy production: opportunity or talent? Can a new team really turn a fantasy beast from last year into a bust this coming year?
Here we will take an in-depth look at two former star receivers now on new teams who have fallen out of favor in the fantasy community—Hakeem Nicks and Eric Decker—and one former ultra-stud running back—Chris Johnson.
Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
Eleven, seven, three and zero. Those are the touchdown totals for Hakeem Nicks beginning with his breakout 2010 season when he finished in the top 10 among fantasy wide receivers.
At age 26, is Nicks already past his prime? Or can a change of scenery with the Indianapolis Colts reinvigorate his rapidly deteriorating status as a top NFL receiver?
To begin, let’s look at what happened last year.
Nicks played 15 games in 2013—tied for the most in his five-year career. He was also remarkably healthy, appearing on the injury report just three times throughout the regular season compared to 13 such occasions in 2012, per USA Today.
So, what happened?
Sure, the Giants had a dumpster fire of a season and quarterback Eli Manning had arguably the worst year of his career—these things will understandably affect a wide receiver’s performance. But it is enough to justify such a precipitous drop in production?
ESPN New York’s Dan Graziano contends that Nicks’ on-field play in 2013 suffered from a lack of incentives to excel.
Per Graziano, Nicks’ “chief motivation was to stay healthy” last season “so that he could cash in as a free agent”—somewhat of a counterintuitive strategy, considering Nicks’ poor production landed him a one-year deal with Indy worth a maximum $4 million ($2 million signing bonus and $2 million in performance-based incentives).
While avoiding injuries is of course important to sustain an NFL career, one has to imagine that if Nicks had performed closer to his 2010-2011 form (averaging 77.5 receptions, 1,122 receiving yards and nine touchdowns) he had the chance to rake in a lucrative, multi-year contract.
Instead, Nicks will be on a “prove-it” deal that could once again send him into the free-agency pool after the season. It goes without saying that Nicks will need to employ a more inspired on-field strategy going forward if his primary goal is to earn a larger paycheck.
So where does this leave Nicks and his value in fantasy for 2014?
The Colts have a crowded receiving corps and Nicks is the newcomer. Fourteen-year veteran Reggie Wayne is cleared to return following his season-ending knee injury suffered last season. He and up-and-coming stud T.Y. Hilton should comprise the starting lineup at wide receiver, as offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton rarely employs three-wideout sets.
Indy also boasts two solid pass-catching tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, a guy who was injured last season (hip) but is in line to resume co-starting duties alongside Fleener. Allen racked up 45 receptions his rookie year in 2012, and OC Hamilton reportedly views him as a “vital” part of the offense, per the team’s website.
Throw in the fact that the Colts will get running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard back from injury to complement Trent Richardson in the run game, and suddenly the team appears chock-full of weapons. Hamilton traditionally employs a run-first scheme, so all three backs will likely be involved, if healthy.
Nicks has to prove that there’s room for him in this offense. His short-term deal signifies that the team views him as a luxury—if he returns to form, then the Colts got a steal. And if he continues on his current path of devolvement, then he’ll just be a $2 million benchwarmer.
The good news for Nicks is that he is still young and currently healthy. If he did simply “lollygag” his way through 2013, as Graziano contends, then he’ll have plenty of upside if his head is in the right place.
Considering Nicks’ current average draft position has him as the No. 40 receiver off the board, per Fantasy Football Calculator, he will not come at a premium in drafts. It would be wise to take him no higher than the fourth receiver on a fantasy roster—you do not want to be in a position to rely on Nicks at any point during the season, but he’s a nice lottery ticket if he can pull his act together.
There’s a small possibility that Nicks will re-emerge as a fantasy stud. However, there’s also a decent chance he will end up as the fourth- or fifth-best receiving option on his team.
Eric Decker, New York Jets
These six wide receivers finished in the top 10 in fantasy scoring at the position each of the past two seasons. Do you notice the outlier?
Decker has been a bona fide fantasy beast over that time period, yet few would be likely to include the 27-year-old in a discussion with these other five studs as one of the league’s most elite receivers.
This consensus opinion is evident in the fact that the other five guys—Johnson, Marshall, Bryant, Thomas and Green—are currently going as the first five wide receivers off the board in fantasy mock drafts, per ADP, while Decker has fallen to WR No. 36.
Clearly, the move from Denver to New York plummeted Decker's fantasy stock.
That will happen when you go from catching balls from Peyton Manning, the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time, to Geno Smith, a guy who had almost twice as many interceptions (21) as he did passing touchdowns (12) his rookie year. Decker averaged 12 receiving touchdowns alone over the past two seasons with Manning under center.
To say that Decker will have a downgrade at quarterback this year is to put it nicely. Even if the Jets’ backup quarterback, Michael Vick, should supplant Smith, Vick’s career average of 16 passing TDs per every 16 games played isn’t exactly prolific.
One argument to suggest that Decker will retain the majority of his fantasy value in 2014 contends that his status as the Jets' No. 1 receiving weapon will result in a high volume of targets. Let’s explore this idea.
The five most targeted receivers on the Jets in 2013 saw 72, 60, 59, 59 and 47 balls thrown their way. No receiver had more than 43 receptions or four touchdowns on the season.
Meanwhile, as Denver’s second-most targeted receiver, Decker saw 137 targets and caught 87 of those balls. To match his volume from 2013, Decker would have to usurp more than 100 percent of the targets from the Jets’ top two receivers from last year combined.
And even if Decker were to receive the same volume in New York as he did in Denver, fantasy owners must also consider the comparative value of those targets.
One hundred forty targets from Manning are not equal to 140 targets from Smith and/or Vick. Manning averaged 8.3 touchdowns per every 100 passing attempts in 2013, while Smith averaged 2.7. Jets receivers caught just over 55 percent of their targets in 2013; Broncos receivers caught just over 68 percent.
Smith will undoubtedly improve in his sophomore year (he has to, right?), but to what extent is unknown. His week-to-week volatility in performance as a rookie should terrify any owner of a Jets receiver.
Taking a quick glance at Smith’s 2013 weekly QBR totals, per ESPN, will give you whiplash (six weeks below 10; five weeks above 70). Predicting when Smith will have a big week is a complete gamble and a headache for fantasy owners of Jets receivers.
Another impediment to Decker’s value is the fact that head coach Rex Ryan favors a run-heavy offense.
In 2013, the Jets ranked 29th in passing attempts and fourth in rushing attempts (the Broncos ranked second in passing attempts). And the offseason addition of Johnson at running back only reinforces the idea that Ryan does not plan to change his approach.
This is not to say that Decker holds no value outside of a Manning-led offense. Decker is a talented receiver. He’s big and strong, at 6'3" and 214 pounds, with good body control. He’s a polished route-runner and a formidable red-zone threat. He should easily win the No. 1 wide receiving role in New York and be the centerpiece of the passing game.
There is value in this role, but it has an unfortunately low ceiling.
Decker is currently being drafted as a low-end No. 3 WR, and he might even outperform that ADP by season’s end. But knowing which weeks he will go off and which weeks he will disappear is the larger issue at hand.
There are few things more frustrating in fantasy than inconsistent performance, and all signs point to Decker having an up-and-down first season in New York. His upside is limited given his quarterback and offensive system. His downside is fantasy irrelevance.
Chris Johnson, New York Jets
It’s been five years since Johnson’s historic season when he totaled more than 2,500 all-purpose yards (5.6 yards per rushing attempt, 10.1 yards per reception) and 16 touchdowns.
Since then, CJ has averaged 1,183 rushing yards on 283 rushing attempts (4.2 yards per rushing attempt), 310 receiving yards on 45 receptions (6.9 yards per reception) and eight total touchdowns over a four-season span.
We can officially confirm that his otherworldly 2009 campaign was the exception and not the rule when it comes to Johnson’s production.
The 28-year-old shouldered a hefty workload over the past four seasons (328 touches per year) and was remarkably consistent, totaling between 1,400 and 1,600 all-purpose yards each year. He’s been a top-15 fantasy running back each season but hasn’t cracked the top five since ’09.
The Jets offered Johnson a two-year, $8 million deal this offseason, adding him to a backfield that also includes 2013 offseason acquisition Chris Ivory as well as third-year plodder Bilal Powell. The question for fantasy owners in 2014 is whether the Jets brought in CJ to assume the bell-cow role to which he was accustomed back in Tennessee, or if the team plans to employ a running back-by-committee approach.
By all accounts, the Jets will wisely opt for the latter, taking into consideration that they now have one back in Johnson with a ton of wear and tear on his legs, and another in Ivory who tends to get banged up quite often.
[Johnson’s] got some miles on him, so we’re going to have to be strategic in how we use him, and when we use him, to keep him fresh so that he can be the explosive guy that I know that he can be.
Johnson and Ivory have varying strengths as rushers, and their workload could reflect that. The Jets will likely favor Johnson on passing downs, given that Ivory has totaled a whopping five receptions in his four-year career (compared to 45 per year for Johnson).
Ivory is a strong between-the-tackles rusher and could see a majority of the early-down workload, while neither back is particularly effective near the goal line—Powell could even get in the mix on such downs.
Johnson’s current ADP as the 24th running back suggests that he’s being taken as a low-end RB2 or a high-end flex play in standard leagues, and this should be appropriate. Barring an injury to Ivory, Johnson's chance to maintain his career averages is low. He’s not the lightning-fast guy he once was, but he’s still an above-average talent with big-play ability.
Drafting Johnson as an every-week starter is a risky strategy. Owners looking at him as their No. 2 RB should be sure to stock up on several high-upside flex options.
A safer strategy might be to grab a second running back earlier in the draft, since wide receivers going in the same range as Johnson (Cordarrelle Patterson, Roddy White, Jackson and Michael Floyd) all offer greater upside at their respective position.
DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
It appeared as though Jackson and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly were a match made in fantasy heaven last year. Kelly’s dynamic offensive system suited Jackson’s skill set to tremendous effect, as the 5’10” speedster saw career highs in targets (126), receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,332). He also tied his career high in touchdowns (nine).
With Kelly calling the shots, Jackson finished as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver for the first time since 2009; however, it seems that it was not all butterflies and rainbows in Philadelphia for Jackson, as he now finds himself in Washington following his unexpected release from the Eagles in March.
Jackson was the team’s unquestioned top receiving option in Philadelphia last year, but this will not be the case while playing in the nation’s capital. Seventh-year stud Pierre Garcon led the league in 2013 with a whopping 184 targets and is quarterback Robert Griffin III’s most trusted weapon.
Jackson still possesses elite speed, but he has proven to be a bit of a one-trick pony outside of an offense such as Kelly’s that utilized him all over the field.
Prior to last season, Jackson’s fantasy owners suffered from boom-or-bust production, requiring a monster play to salvage his weekly value. A regression to his pre-Kelly production is likely, making him a hard-to-predict No. 2 WR who can offer top-five numbers or nearly disappear on any given week.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
Kelly may have found a partial remedy for Jackson’s absence in running back pass-catcher extraordinaire Darren Sproles. While Sproles is certainly not a deep threat like Jackson, he can be used in similar ways near the line of scrimmage, where Kelly often targeted Jackson.
Kelly has touted Sproles as “a really, really talented running back” whom he plans to use as starter LeSean McCoy’s primary backup and as a receiver, according to Birds 24/7’s Sheil Kapadia (h/t Philadelphia Magazine).
Clearly the second-year head coach expects big things from the 10-year pro, given his three-year, $10.5 million deal—one of the most expensive running back contracts in free agency.
Sproles should adapt quickly to Kelly’s scheme. He is familiar with a fast-paced, spread offense from his previous three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, where he averaged a staggering 77 receptions and 5.4 yards per rushing attempt.
Though the team has a slew of receiving options, Sproles is a unique player whose value should be maximized within Philly’s offense. He’s currently being drafted as a low-end flex, but he’s a safer bet to offer consistent production than other running backs going off the board in his range, such as Maurice Jones-Drew and Bernard Pierce.
Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
Moreno has had a rough offseason following his top-five fantasy performance last year. His only suitor in free agency, the Miami Dolphins, offered him a paltry one-year, $3 million deal.
The sixth-year veteran showed up to OTAs suspiciously out of shape, ceding first-team reps to teammate Lamar Miller. Recently, news of an ongoing medical issue with Moreno’s knee resulted in the need for surgery that will reportedly keep him out at least until the preseason, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter:
And...Dolphins RB Knowshon Moreno will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery this week and miss four to five weeks, per ESPN sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 23, 2014
Combine all this with the potentially season-ending labrum injury to Miami’s Pro-Bowl center Mike Pouncey, and Moreno’s fantasy outlook is beyond bleak. Until it is seen how he recovers from surgery, Moreno is potentially a player to avoid altogether in 2014.
James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.