NFL Draft Impact: Passing Ripples
The NFL Draft has a way of clearing up ambiguous narratives. There is only so much hiding of intentions that teams can do when they are on the clock. The issues that they address, or fail to, help map out what we can expect during the NFL and fantasy seasons. Below we will address five passing games that, either directly or indirectly, were quietly affected by who was picked this weekend.
While we wait to see in what order the Cowboys’ backfield flotsam will float to the top of their depth chart, the quiet winners are the passing game pieces. Dallas also skipped significant receiving upgrades, leaving a familiar—if underused—cast from 2014 unchanged. No matter how they divide the rushing workload, it’s tough to forecast anything but an uptick in passing frequency.
In 2014, the Cowboys ranked 19th in snaps while operating the third-most run-heavy offense (50.1 percent of snaps). Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley were portraits of efficiency. All three wideouts ranked in the top-25 at their position on a fantasy point-per-target basis, and Romo placed third in points per dropback.
Beasley profiles as a homeless man’s Wes Welker, right down to his spare change price tag. Over their last five games, he inexplicably saw more targets than Bryant, and his 6.7-yard aDOT paints him as an “extension of the running game” candidate while the running game finds its legs. Bryant was the third-best fantasy wideout on the fewest targets he’s seen since 2011. He’ll be my top-ranked fantasy wideout again.
The offseason started with the Cardinals upgrading their line’s interior with the signing of road-grading guard Mike Iupati. A shift in offensive approach was forecast, and that outlook picked up steam once the Adrian Peterson rumors began to take hold. Since then, however, little of what Arizona has done signals a shift away from Bruce Arians’ pass-based offense.
Peterson appears destined to remain in Minnesota. Andre Ellington, whose game is clearly finesse-based, has reportedly been ticketed for a familiar backfield role. Third-round pick David Johnson possesses the size to play a physical style, but apparently not the desire. He’s best suited for passing game work. First round tackle D.J. Humphries is known more for athleticism than sheer power at this point.
This adds up to another heavy load on Carson Palmer’s arm, for as long as he can shoulder it. His ACL rehab is reportedly going well, and a fantasy bet on Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, or John Brown, is really a bet on Palmer. The first two, particularly, are dependent on the veteran quarterback. The good news is the offensive line finally looks strong, Palmer performs significantly better when given time, and they’re all cheap to acquire.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last year represented the run-heaviest Andy Reid offense in over a decade (43.7 percent), and it’s both fashionable and fun to blame it on the risk-averse Alex Smith. While Smith probably does wear a life jacket in the shower, there were other contributing factors to his career-low 6.0-yard aDOT. There also are signs that 2015 will be a little different, and he’s a safe bet to outperform his meager draft cost.
When your deep targets consist of Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, and someone called Frankie Hammond, it’s hard to blame Smith for dumping it off to Jamaal Charles and Travis Kelce. Jeremy Maclin, who had an 11.3-yard aDOT the last time Reid was his coach, will be Smith’s prime target and help boost the quarterback’s frequency of downfield attempts. Kelce’s 6.3-yard aDOT is also likely to rise.
Third-round pick Chris Conley should be able to leapfrog calcifying veteran Jason Avant without much problem, even if Avant gets the “Anthony Fasano-treatment” from Reid for a little while. Stat-head favorite Albert Wilson will inject a much-needed spark into the passing game. With Jamaal Charles likely requiring a somewhat lightened load, it’s reasonable to expect a heavier dose of Alex Smith in 2015.
New England Patriots
There is no denying that LeGarrette Blount escaped draft weekend with his value intact, or at least where it was at this time last week. Yet, there’s still a non-zero chance that Jonas Gray consistently figures out how to work his alarm clock, and Tyler Gaffney remains an interesting prospect.
Blount’s every-week utility is capped by New England’s propensity to deploy personnel based on matchups. Although he is their most likely run game hammer, there will be games that are better-suited to using a scalpel. Don’t be surprised if the “Vereen Game” tag is reserved for Travaris Cadet when the Patriots face imposing front sevens. Among others, that includes the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills, twice each.
New England also skipped over drafting wideouts of note. This helps secure Brandon LaFell’s underrated fantasy value, as well as everyone’s favorite Glass Joe comp—Danny Amendola. He averaged 6.6 targets per game over their last five (including three playoff contests), and scored three times. The Patriots worked to modify his contract, rather than outright cutting him. If Julian Edelman ever goes down, Amendola will scrape together comparable stats.
New Orleans Saints
The draft day tea leaves didn’t all read positively for passing games around the league. New Orleans was widely expected to draft receiving help, potentially as high as the first round. They repeatedly passed and will go into the season with an aged Marques Colston, mighty mite Brandin Cooks, and a long list of question marks that Drew Brees will be throwing balls to.
Brees, whose fantasy point-per-dropback efficency has slipped noticeably over the last four seasons, will need to reverse that trend if his raw production is to remain the same in the face of lower passing volume. Considering that he lost his most efficient target, Kenny Stills, in addition to his best weapon in Jimmy Graham, that’s a lot to ask of the aging quarterback.
Of course, we are talking about a player who has averaged 628 pass attempts in the nine years he’s been in New Orleans, including 659 during the past five seasons. Even if the Saints don’t again rank in the top-five for passing percentage like last season (62.9 percent), they’re not about to become the Rex Ryan-era Jets (sorry, Sammy). But the draft did serve to confirm what we suspected. The Brees Era Saints’ high-flying ways will be more grounded starting in 2015.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman