Fantasy 5: Brandin Cooks primed for another big year

The Saints WR looks safe to repeat his 2015 breakout, says Jeff Ratcliffe. Plus, Kevin White's chances and the Houston slot WR.

| 11 months ago
(Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

(Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Fantasy 5: Brandin Cooks primed for another big year

Every weekday, the Fantasy 5 will take a look at the five most important NFL news stories for fantasy football players, giving you the advice you need to improve your team.

There is no offseason in the NFL. Sure, the teams aren’t playing, or even practicing right now. But even in this dark period for the league, there’s still a lot to talk about. Here’s today’s Fantasy 5:

1. Expect Brandin Cooks to pick up where he left off.

At this time last year, Cooks was a popular breakout candidate in fantasy circles. Initially it looked like he was on the fast track to busting, with just 20 catches for 215 yards and no scores over the first four weeks of the season. But Cooks turned a corner in October and went on to score the eighth-most fantasy points over the last 13 weeks of the season. During that stretch, he outscored the likes of A.J. Green, Eric Decker and Calvin Johnson.

In previewing Saints training camp, ESPN’s Mike Triplett said Cooks looks like he’s ready to explode this season. While the phrasing is enticing, Cooks already exploded last year. The question for fantasy purposes is whether he’ll be able to pick up with where he left off? We think he will, and have him positioned as a borderline WR1.

But keep in mind that we’re unlikely to see a significant bump in Cooks’ target volume. He saw 126 targets last season, and the Saints have better weapons this year with the offseason additions of free agent Coby Fleener and rookie Michael Thomas. We’re projecting Cooks for a similar workload to what he saw last season. That being said, Cooks was one of just 10 wide receivers last year to top 30 deep-ball targets, and he scored six of his nine touchdowns on deep passes. That big-play upside in the Saints’ fantasy friendly offenses makes Cooks a very appealing fantasy option in 2016.

[To take Brandin Cooks as a No. 1 receiver, you’ll need to know who you’re passing up on. Take a spin with PFF’s new Draft Master tool to find out, plus get recommendations on the players you should target in every round of your draft.]

2. How should Kevin White be valued in fantasy drafts?

There have been mixed reviews about White’s offseason performance in Bears’ practices. About a month ago, we heard from the Chicago Sun-Times that White appeared to struggle and “looked like a work in progress.” But then yesterday ESPN Nation’s Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson said White “looked like a beast in the offseason program.”

We’ve seen conflicting viewpoints from beat writers numerous times every offseason, and that’s going to continue in perpetuity. As fantasy players, we have to be aware of this and not overreact to reports from team beats. If we look a little closer at Dickerson’s words, he did call White a beast, but made no reference to any specific plays from offseason practices. He also went on to say that White “looks the part” on paper. So, he’s essentially telling us nothing we didn’t already know.

White is a freakish athlete with sub-4.4 speed and size you can’t teach. But he entered the league as a raw route runner out of a spread system in college where he used his athleticism to beat opposing defense. That just doesn’t work in the NFL, but White has had a year to learn the offense. Still, a lot of questions remain about how he’ll perform this season. At this point, it’s tough to get behind White as a top-36 fantasy option, though he certainly has the upside to be a WR3-or-better.

3. Ryan Mathews still positioned as an RB2.

Mathews is one of the more polarizing players in the RB2 conversation this season. To some, he’s a strong value as the No. 24 running back currently coming off the board in early drafts. To others, he’s a “meh” option who belongs in the lackluster Jeremy Langford/Matt Jones tier of fantasy running back options.

On our SiriusXM show, Eagles beat writer Chris McPherson called Mathews the “clear No. 1” in the Philly backfield. But just like above with White, there are dissenting points of view about Mathews on the Eagles beat. Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice said Mathews isn’t a great fit for Doug Pederson’s offense and called him “the Sam Bradford of running backs.” Ouch.

So yet again, how are we supposed to process all of this when evaluating Mathews for fantasy purposes? While the Bradford comment doesn’t inspire much confidence, Mathews is still in a great situation to get the lion’s share of work. Darren Sproles figures to remain heavily involved as a receiver, but Mathews has little competition for early-down work. In an offense that will lean on the run game, he’s still positioned to go over 200 carries and finished the season close to the 250-touch range, provided he stays healthy. With that sort of workload, it’ll be hard for Mathews to not post RB2 numbers this season.

4. The Duke Johnson hype train continues to gain momentum.

Throughout the offseason, we’ve heard chatter about Johnson being used as an every-down back and Browns running backs coach Kirby Wilson called him “an ultimate weapon.” Now ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi thinks Johnson will top 70 catches this season.

Just five running backs have gone over 70 receptions in the last two season. Of that group, Theo Riddick last year was the only one to finish outside of the RB1s in both major scoring formats. Last season, he caught 80 balls and ranked 18th in PPR and 38th in standard. While the projection may seem lofty, Johnson had 61 catches last season and ranked sixth among running backs in targets with 70.

Johnson certainly is an exciting player and one of this year’s prime breakout candidates. However, two factors could potentially hold him back. The first is the Browns’ offense. With a suspect-at-best quarterback situation, the Cleveland offense is likely to spin their wheels a lot this season. The other is Johnson’s role on early downs. With Isaiah Crowell likely getting a bulk of that work, Johnson doesn’t figure to see enough carries to sustain RB2 production in standard leagues. That being said, his projected target volume makes Johnson a very appealing option in PPR leagues.

5. What can fantasy owners expect from Will Fuller and Jaelen Strong in 2016?

Fuller is an exciting player who blazed a 4.32 40-yard dash at the combine and racked up 708 yards on deep-ball targets last year at Notre Dame. He’s a receiver with game-breaking speed who can make others look like they’re standing still on the field. Fuller did have some issues with drops in college – he dropped 10-of-101 targets in 2015 – but he adds a field-stretching dynamic to the Texans’ offense that they lacked last season.

For fantasy purposes, it looks like Fuller won’t be an immediate impact player, as the Texans are likely to ease him into the offense this season. That means second-year man Jaelen Strong could be the Week 1 starter at wide receiver opposite DeAndre Hopkins. Strong struggled in his rookie year, but he came to offseason practices in good shape and with a positive attitude. Strong has an intriguing profile as a player who entered the league with 4.4 speed and a 42-inch vertical at 6’2, 215. With Fuller being eased in, Strong is someone to monitor in the preseason. He’s currently going undrafted as the 77th wide receiver in ADP, while Fuller is the 53rd wide receiver being selected.

| Director of Fantasy

Jeff Ratcliffe is the Director of Fantasy at Pro Football Focus. He produces all of our projections and is 2016's second-most-accurate ranker in the fantasy industry. Jeff also is the host of our show on SiriusXM fantasy sports radio and is one of the main hosts of our Fantasy Slant podcast.

  • Danimal

    The Browns’ low vegas win total suggests they will be playing from behind a ton this season. Its safe to assume vegas knows what they are doing so I am going to trust the book makers on this one. My point is that the data strongly suggests teams greatly favor passing when they are trailing and rushing when they have a lead. This indicates a favorable likelihood that Duke outsnaps Crowell in most of their games. Crowell also lacks the strong (albiet in a limited sample size) resume and draft capital of Jeremy Hill who Hue Jackson stuck with even when his efficiency plummeted. What im getting at is Crowell has to overcome gamescript and his own poor effeciency to stay on the field as the season rolls along, while a bad team only hurts Duke’s scoring chances, but not his usage (touchdowns can be fluky from year to year anyway). I think the signs point to Duke eventually outsnapping and outtouching Crowell by seasons end.

    • Chad

      True although I wouldn’t say Crowell’s efficiency makes him less likely to outplay Duke Johnson when Crowell’s YPC were better than Dukes despite playing the big back role last year (3.8 to 3.6). But yeah they will be playing from behind a lot so its likely Johnson sees more snaps but from a pure efficiency standpoint though Crowell isn’t as far off as the glowing Duke Johnson praise would have you believe. He actually outperformed Duke Johnson last year on both YPR and YPC.

      • Danimal

        Very true, Duke was inefficient as well. Im basing my theory on crowells status as an UDFA that they team has little invested in. Draft capital suggests Duke could continue to be a below average runner and still get a good number of carries (in addition to his passing game role). But its also entirely possible the coaching staff secretly wants Terrell Watson to take over the big back role and carry the early down load. My main point was I have read analysts suggest 1000 yds for crowell which I personally think is absurd.

  • Chad

    Will Fuller seems like a terrible pick to me. He is a one trick deep threat tied to a QB who struggled badly with the deep ball last year. Looks like he is headed for a Devin Smith or at best last years Torrey Smith type year to me. I am scooping up Jaelen Strong at the end of the drafts I think he could make some noise if not oh well it didn’t really cost anything to make the gamble.

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