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Rob Dubay

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It’s hard to believe but we’re already a quarter of the way through the NFL season. If you’re lucky, your fantasy team got off to a strong start and, like the Rams, Bills and Lions, you’re feelingly surprisingly good about your team. Or maybe, like the Browns, Giants and Chargers, your team is 0-4 and feeling pretty hopeless. (It’s worth nothing that your shitty fantasy team probably has more fans than the Chargers these days.) Either way, there’s still a lot of season left and players who have looked great could slow down or get hurt even as players who have slumped or been injured finally get back on track. In the meantime, let’s take a look at five early season storylines that have stood out through the season’s first quarter.

Todd Gurley is Back

It’s early but the Los Angeles Rams seem to have found new life under new head coach Sean McVay. Nowhere is this spark more visible than the rebirth of Todd Gurley, who leads all running backs in fantasy points and has been a monster in both rushing and receiving yardage. McVay has committed to getting Gurley the football behind a re-tooled offensive line and it sure seems to be working: Gurley is averaging 29 fantasy points per game and is showing no signs of stopping. With Gurley averaging over 21 carries and five catches per game, his owners have to be thrilled with his early work this year. Look for the Rams to continue to provide lots of opportunity for this offensive juggernaut.

ACDC and the Raiders are a Mess

New Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing has been ineffective in play-calling for this talented offense. Amari Cooper (AC) has ghosted on the season, tallying only 12 catches thus far. Couple this with Derek Carr’s (DC) lower back injury and you have a recipe for fantasy disaster. Carr is slated to miss as many as six weeks and the Raiders will have to handle his situation delicately. Backup QB E.J. Manuel does not provide the kind of downfield ability that Carr possesses and which is so important to the team’s offensive gameplan. To go along with the struggles of ACDC, the Raiders have hardly gotten anything from Marshawn Lynch. The preseason hype that Lynch garnered was due mainly to a supposed “high-caliber” offensive line. Lynch is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry and has found the end zone only once. If you’re an owner of anyone from the Silver and Black, your best bet might be to place them on your bench until they can prove that they’re worth a start.

Caught in a Deep Sleep

Now that the horror of the pre-season is behind us, several rosters were stricken by the injury bug. If you’re lucky, your draft was scheduled late in August so you avoided having your team submarined by preseason injuries. Someone in your league (hopefully not you) has already watched Julian Edelman, Spencer Ware or Cameron Meredith succumb to a season-ending injury, taking a fantasy season’s worth of hopes with them. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’re probably digging deep in your post-draft notes for a guy that won’t be on anyone else’s radar. If you had players fall due to injuries, you’re probably scrambling to scour the waiver wire right now. Thankfully, there are a bundle of players who made strides this pre-season that may be able to fill out your roster. Let’s take a look at why these deep sleepers could be a good investment for your team in 2017.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Despite all of the buzz surrounding Sammy Watkins landing in Tinseltown, it’s a rookie wideout who has emerged in camp as a potential weapon for the Rams. Kupp, who holds FCS records in touchdowns and receptions at Eastern Washington, has clicked immediately with quarterback Jared Goff. Working out of the slot, Kupp has snatched eight receptions for over 100 yards and two scores in the preseason two games he’s played. Kupp is in great position to take reps away from Tavon Austin in the three wide receiver sets that the Rams will frequently use. Granted, many will neglect taking anyone from this Rams offense due to their anemic numbers a season ago, but new head coach and boy wonder Sean McVay. (Dude is only 30 years old) will look to channel the offensive firepower he had as the Redskins offensive coordinator a season ago. McVay envisions Kupp as the Jamison Crowder of this offense. The type of wideout that can haul in seven to eight catches a game and one that can move the chains when the team needs it most. In PPR leagues, Kupp can be a vital player on your bench, someone that you can use for a spot start. Don’t be surprised if Kupp explodes onto the scene and becomes an asset for you when your trade deadline rolls around. Kupp is owned by 16.2% of owners on ESPN.

Robby Anderson, WR, New York Jets

Rumor has it that the winless ’08 Detroit Lions crack open PBR tall boys once the last team wins a game each NFL season but their record of futility could be under attack: the 2017 Jets look like a team threatening to go 0-16. That may seem bleak for fantasy players but, per NFL rules, the Jets will actually have to field a team and show up on Sundays this fall which means someone on that terrible roster is going to get a chance to move the ball. If for some twisted reason you have been paying attention to the Jets this preseason, you’ll notice that Robby Anderson is now their top wide receiver after Quincy Enunwa went down with a neck injury in early August. This leaves a tantalizing possibility for you as an owner: having the chance at nabbing a #1 wideout on a terrible team. Sure, Anderson may not have starting material for you on your squad, but he’ll be able to rack up stats in garbage time and has the highest chance to score TDs for this Jets receiving corps. Anderson may even get enough attention in this offense for you to consider him as a FLEX if your higher rated players struggle at the start of this season. Anderson is owned by 4.2% of owners on ESPN.

Last time around we took a look at two phenoms down in Dallas, so today let’s cruise up to the midwest for a look at two of last year’s most surprising rookie successes.

Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears

If you were to ask a Chicago Bears fan about the best parts of their disastrous 2016 season, what would they mention? Probably not Matt Barkley’s 14 interceptions or Chicago’s putrid -20 turnover ratio. Unless they’re a masochist. They probably didn’t much enjoy how a majority of their defensive starters landed on IR, either. For your average Bears fan, the 2016 season was only slightly more enjoyable than getting a piece of kielbasa lodged in your heart.

Remember your second year of college, when your GPA tanked after you got a fake ID and started dating that girl with the lower back tattoo? How about the second year at your office job, when you got complacent and spent more time looking at memes and GIFs than focusing on the projects that got you a promotion during your first year with the company? The point of all this recollection – aside from the necessary reminder that you’re an idiot – is that sometimes things fall apart in their second year. The sophomore slump is real, people, and NFL players are no exception. Don’t believe me? Just ask Todd Gurley, Jeremy Langford, Thomas Rawls and Ameer Abdullah how things went in Year 2.

Changes to offensive schemes or lines are among the long list of factors1 that can play a big role in whether or not a guy will falter during his second season. To be clear, this is not an exact science. The sophomore slump is far from guaranteed: Hall of Famers like Eric Dickerson, Kurt Warner and Dan Marino had their best statistical seasons in their second season. Of course, back when Dickerson and Marino were pros, fantasy was very different as it involved abacuses (abaci?) and page after page of handwritten scoresheets. Plus, you couldn’t check the score of your game at any minute; that shit came in the mail and you wouldn’t get your results until, like, Thursday. What a time to be alive. So today, let’s take a look at a couple of high profile rookies lining up in the same backfield to see if we can predict whether or not they’re likely to succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump.

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Prescott became a fantasy darling almost instantly during his rookie season. After Tony Romo fell victim to what turned out to be a career ending back injury, Prescott was given keys to the Lamborghini that was the Dallas offense. The Cowboys flourished under Prescott right from the start and his fantasy value soared. As owners began to pluck Prescott off the waiver wire and insert him as their starter, they were rewarded with a sensational season that included 23 TDs, over 3,600 yards and six scores on the ground. Most impressively, Prescott protected the ball like a seasoned pro as he threw only four picks over the course of the year. Prescott finished his rookie year as a reliable QB1 and will be near the top of a lot of draft boards this summer.

Despite that stellar opening act, there are reasons to be skeptical of Prescott heading in to Year 2. First, he has to contend with Ezekiel Elliott keeping a large share of Dallas’ offensive playcalls. Elliott ran the ball over 300 times as a rookie and will likely get even more added to his workload in 2017. The Cowboys’ reliance on the running game can cut into passing production and fantasy owners may be better served by someone in a more pass heavy scheme as their QB1. Next, defenses have now had an opportunity to dissect his Prescott’s tendencies and weaknesses. Expect added pressure and a variety of different coverage packages to be thrown at Prescott this season. Plus, Dallas’ schedule does him no favors: he’ll face four of 2017’s top ten passing defenses. Lastly, the fantastic Cowboys offensive line is under some reconstruction this season. Right tackle Doug Free retired and guard/tackle La’el Collins is coming off an injury plagued season. The uncertainty along the right side of the line has some in Jerry World panicking about potentially underwhelming pass protection which would directly impact Prescott. Just ask Romo.

At the end of the day, Prescott still has Elliott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and his li’l buddy Cole Beasley by his side. If offensive coordinator Scott Linehan continues to let Prescott play in a loose, aggressive manner, his fantasy numbers should stay consistent in Year 2.

Slump Probability: Medium to Low

Ameer Abdullah is entering his 3rd season in the NFL, but before he’s even stepped foot on a field in 2017, red flags have been raised and rightfully so in regards to his value as a solid RB in the upcoming fantasy season. The Detroit Lions made a splash in 2015 when they picked Abdullah in the 2nd round. While at Nebraska,  his impressive stats and flashy highlight reels dazzled scouts and Abdullah’s speed, agility and ability as a receiver elevated his draft stock. After fans got a peek at what he could do on a football field, he was starting to draw comparisons to Barry Sanders. Which for fans in the Motor City is blasphemy. But, Lions fans have craved an electrifying back since Sanders abruptly retired in the summer of 1999. And while the jury is still out on whether Abdullah can be fill the shoes of an all time great, for now we’ll just need to settle the debate over whether or not he’s the right fit for your fantasy team.

In his rookie season, Abdullah was thrust into a starting position from day one, but could never quite get anything going. He could only muster 597 yards and 2 scores on the ground and less than 200 yards receiving. In fact, he made his biggest impact returning kickoffs, as he finished 2nd in the league in average return yardage. This prompted fantasy owners to avoid drafting him leading up to the 2016 season. He was, on average, the 33rd RB off the board in 2016.

In his second season, Abdullah hit the ground running (pun intended) with a stellar Week 1 performance against the Colts, putting up 110 all-purpose yards and caught a pass for a score. He did all of that while managing 5.3 yards per carry and 11.4 yards per reception. He wasn’t done as Abdullah kept up that pace in week 2 against the Titans. Yet, after landing awkwardly on his foot, Abdullah was placed on the IR, derailing his 2016 season.

It’ll takes years of player development and performance before we can accurately judge the 2017 NFL Draft but what good has patience ever done anyone? You’ve got a fantasy draft coming up in a few months! Let’s take a look at some of the big rookie names that’ll be in play come August.

Wide Receivers

Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

In Tennessee, a stable of durable running backs cut into the passing production of Marcus Mariota during his surprisingly efficient sophomore season: DeMarco Murray’s bounce back year was a bright spot in Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense while last year’s second rounder, Derrick Henry, had a productive season given his limited touches. Even if Henry continues to perform in an expanded role, for the Titans to get back into contention in the AFC South, they needed nab a top receiver this off-season. Well, in the first round, the Titans selected record-setting Davis out of Western Michigan. Davis figures to earn a starting role right away, opposite Rishard Matthews in an offense that has something of an identity crisis at receiver. With his size and versatility, Davis should see time both in the slot and on the outside. His speed and ability to obtain massive YAC yards has some ears perked up in the fantasy realm but let’s temper those expectations: he’ll likely be Mariota’s 3rd option this year, as safety valve tight end Delanie Walker continues to roam the middle of the field, gobbling up targets. Still, some mild health concerns aside, Davis has real upside and could blossom into Mariota’s #1 wideout by season’s end.

Verdict: Good bench depth as your 4th or 5th WR; worth a late-round pick or a few auction dollars but not much more. Yet.

It’ll takes years of player development and performance before we can accurately judge the 2017 NFL Draft but what good has patience ever done anyone? You’ve got a fantasy draft coming up in a few months! Let’s take a look at some of the big rookie names that’ll be in play come August.

Quarterbacks

Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

As you’ve no doubt heard, the 2017 NFL Draft was not a strong one for quarterbacks. Apparently, that little tidbit didn’t make its way to the Chicago Bears who went full Leeroy Jenkins and barreled headfirst into an insane trade for the 2nd overall pick in order to snag Mitchell Trubisky. It’s entirely possible that, before he’s even snapped the ball once, Trubisky is already more hated in Chicago than Jay Cutler ever was. Read that sentence again. It doesn’t seem possible and yet, after signing Mike Glennon to a preposterously lucrative free agent contract, the Bears went all in on Trubisky and, well, here we are. This is what self-combustion looks like in the NFL. There is no fantasy value here. Trubisky likely won’t start until mid-season and has no one to throw the ball to. Apologies to the Kevin White truthers out there.

Verdict: Expect confusion, conflict and chaos in the Windy City. Hard pass.