Watkins, Matthews, Darby…Breaking Down A Chaotic Hour of Trades 

Nick Dunkeyson

Unless you’re desperate to see how your third-string linebackers are playing, preseason can feel like a bit of a dead time. Camp battles are fun and all, but you want something out of the leftfield to grab your attention. Well, Friday evening (UK time) gave us a couple of sudden, unexpected and intriguing trades to do just that. Let’s do a quick analysis of what happen, and what it means for all concerned. 

Sammy Watkins -> LA Rams EJ Gaines -> Buffalo Bills

First of all, the Buffalo Bills traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the LA Rams, along with a sixth-round pick, in exchange for a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines. While it’s always surprising when a team trades one of their stars away, not all surprises are created equal. Buffalo obviously weren’t exactly satisfied with the time Watkins has missed due to injuried. Declining his fifth-year option with no other receiving quality on the roster was at best a bafflingly passive-aggressive move. 

While that decision probably limited Watkins’ value, Los Angeles still paid a high price. For a second-round pick and a cornerback two years removed from a promising rookie year, they got a high-upside potential #1 wide receiver with injury history who is only under contract for one year. It’s like the Jamie Collins situation last year. You would hope the Rams are confident they can tie Watkins down to a long-term extension, because otherwise that’s a high price for a one-year rental. 

As for the Bills, this trade gives them a second-round pick to go alongside their two first-round picks, and it gives them an extra body with NFL experience at cornerback, but about that cornerback corps… 

Ronald Darby -> Philadelphia Eagles, Jordan Matthews -> Buffalo Bills 

 

You might think Jordan Matthews is the headline in this trade, but for me it’s Ronald Darby that this trade’s legacy will hinge on. Darby is an excellent cornerback. Remember in 2015 when Marcus Peters got a bunch of interceptions and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie? Well, the best rookie corner that year was Darby, because where Peters was flashy and inconsistent, Darby was unassuming yet dominant. All that reversed course in 2016, as Peters kicked on to become an absolute stud and Darby took a step back. He definitely has the potential to be a #1 corner though, and Philadelphia will give him the opportunity.  

While the Bills secondary now looks a bit sparser (even with the very underrated addition in the draft of Tre’Davious White), they can feel less worried by their receiver corps. Matthews isn’t the vertical threatWatkins is, but he’s a good slot receiver and will be a reliable weapon for a mercurial quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.  

In gaining a third-round pick, the Bills now have two picks in each of the first three rounds next year. Could, you think, they be targeting a rebuild? 

 

Winners And Losers From These Trades 

Winner: Jared Goff and Todd Gurley 

Holy hell does Jared Goff need a receiver capable of making him look good. And holy hell does Todd Gurley need Jared Goff to be able to throw passes to help unblock that box. Watkins gives Goff a vertical threat from an otherwise unexciting receiving corps. If Goff kicks on at all in year 2, things might ungum for Gurley. But before you get carried away: remember that the Rams have just substantially upgraded their receiving corps, and are now basically last year’s Bills WR group. Which wasn’t exactly inspiring. 

Loser: Sammy Watkins 

Okay, Tyrod Taylor may not be a receiver’s dream quarterback, with his efficient but low passing totals and penchant for running. But in his rookie year, Jared Goff struggled with accuracy, arm strength, reading the field, you name it. If Goff’s flaws were actual flaws rather than just rookie struggles, Watkins can run as fast as he likes and get as open as he likes, but Goff ain’t gonna find him. 

Winner: Brandon Beane 

He may have not been the most inspiring GM signing you can imagine, after years treading water in the Panthers’ back office, but Beane now has a huge opportunity coming into 2018. The Bills are self-evidently in rebuild mode. There are a vast swathe of team roles up for grabs. And now, thanks to three trades – including one organised by since-ousted GM Doug Whaley – Buffalo have two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. That’s a huge opportunity to build a young core for a franchise which hasn’t been to the playoffs since Bill Clinton was still president. 

Loser: Rams mock drafters 

Rams fans who love a good mock draft must be bored off their faces these days. After a slew of pick-heavy years, the Rams had no first-round pick this year, and now have no second-round pick in 2018. Look forward to feeling a bit disillusioned in April next year, Rams fans. 

Winner: Philadelphia Eagles 

Just in general. Giving away a starting slot receiver and a third-round pick for Ronald Darby is, admittedly, a heavy price. But not too heavy. Matthews’ value to the Eagles was at an all-time low, after an inconsistent 2016, additions of Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith in preseason, and the emergence of both 2015 1st-round pick Nelson Agholor and fourth-round rookie Mack Hollins. 

Corner, meanwhile, was as big a need as ever (and Philly have really struggled for corners in recent years). While they doubled-down on corners in the draft, both need time. 2nd round pick Sidney Jones was drafted despite a torn Achilles he sustained on his Pro Day. The pickup of Darby should release the pressure for him to be rushed in. Third-rounder Rasul Douglas has promise, but shouldn’t be exposed outside the slot in first year if possible. 

And in general, it’s a win for GM Howie Roseman because no-one loves trades quite like Howie loves trades. Getting to have a bit of fun and throw players around is great, and to hell with continuity! 

Loser: Tavon Austin 

Austin’s always struggled to live up to his draft billing, and has ended up as more a ferociously overpaid gadget player than an offensive cog. Now that Los Angeles have acquired Watkins to go with the offseason additions of Robert Woods (free agency), Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds (draft), suddenly there are fewer snaps to go round for a player blessed with fantastic athleticism but a less-than-ideal grasp of playbooks. 

 

12 Day Two Picks Who Will Have A Day One Impact

Nick Dunkeyson

Here’s a reductive way to look at rookies: you want your first round picks to be impact players by year one, your second round picks by year two, your third round by year three. It doesn’t always work like that in practice. One on side, your first round picks sometimes need a year or so to adjust. And on the flipside, your second or third round picks can sometimes contribute from day one. Here’s a look at some day two picks who could do just that.

Zay Jones.jpg

The problem with starting this article with the earliest-picked players is they can seem bleeding obvious. Outside of Sammy Watkins, Buffalo have the “Seattle offensive line” of wide receiver depth charts. They are willingly paying Corey/Philly Brown money, for heaven’s sake.

A reliable, high-effort, technically-sound player like Zay Jones is a step in the right direction. Jones caught 1,746 yards of passes at mid-major competition last year. The step up in competition will be tricky, but it’s not as if the current roster is coping too well anyway. Receivers don’t tend to dominate in their rookie year, especially not one without the extreme physical traits to sometimes just get by on that. But this is about contributing, not dominating, and a technically-able, not-slow possession receiver should be able to do that.

Forrest Lamp.jpg

You didn’t get many better names in the draft this year than Lamp. Nor did you get many better linemen. Lamp had an odd draft build-up, soaring up draft boards into top 12s or top 16s overall. I didn’t feel this level of love. I compared him to Joel Bitonio, who just secured a big-bucks contract extension in Cleveland. From last year, Cody Whitehair would have been a pretty apt comparison too, except Whitehair is more of a pure guard/center. Both, you’ll note, were picked around this range in their respective drafts too.

Lamp was a left tackle for Western Kentucky, much like Bitonio was, but people muttered (as they do) about arm length and that was that. Fact is, Lamp could in theory play anywhere on an offensive line which has been overhauled since ranking second-last in 2016, per ProFootballFocus. He could be a serviceable left tackle (though with Russell Okung there now, he won’t need to be). He could play right tackle when Joe Barksdale inevitably gets injured. I suspect he’ll start at left guard, day one, and after a couple of iffy moments in the first couple of weeks, he’ll excel.

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Depending on the extent of your Latavius Murray mancrush, this is one heck of an obvious pick. Cook was a first-round talent beset by those “off-field issues”, hence the second-round pick. He also tested pretty poorly at the combine, with a slow 40 time particularly. Thing is, Cook’s never been a back to test you with breakaway speed. He was always, at college, a

shifty player with great vision, capable of finding a small gap or using receiving skills to make space for himself and make players miss.

Betting on a running back to contribute early in their professional career tends to be a safe bet. Minnesota’s existing running back stable – Murray, Jerrick McKinnon, err…Bishop Sankey? – isn’t exactly inspiring. I mean, I don’t know if Cook can transcend a mediocre O-Line, but I do know the existing options can’t. Cook has the opportunity, talent and pedigree. That’s why he’ll go that early in your fantasy draft, too.

Baltimore’s approach to their offense in this year’s draft is best summarised by their day 2 picks. To wit, three players who can help with the pass rush. It drove Mike Tanier over at Bleacher Report to entertaining distraction. But heck, the Ravens did have needs in their front seven, so why not just go for it?

Of these three, Bowser looks the most like a three-down impact player. Normally when rookies are listed at outside linebacker, they’ve played 4-3 end at college. So, they’re used to being among the bulkier, in-the-trenches bull-rush kind of guys who have to convert. Not so Bowser, who dropped into coverage plenty to go alongside his 8.5 sacks and acceptable run defense. He’s raw, but full of athleticism and easy to imagine being able to do a bit of everything from day one.

From the other two, Wormley is a run-stopping force with pass-rushing chops who occupied enough blocks to help Taco Charlton break out. You’d fancy he’ll be rotated in early. Williams looks like a fine third-down pass rusher to start with. Baltimore had question marks hanging over their pass rush this offseason, so there’s opportunity here.

I’ll admit that this is the one I’m least confident about on this list. But it’s also the most fun to think about. Kizer’s stock was up and down like a sine wave last year, eventually settling mid-second round because of issues around consistency, a lack of college success, and that eternally-coded mumbling about “maturity”.

A shame really, because he’s an incredibly talented quarterback who, if he puts it all together, will be even more of a steal than when Oakland drafted Derek Carr in the second round. Kizer makes beautiful throws, has good accuracy (when his receivers actually catch the damn thing), toughness and elusiveness, and decent field vision. His shortcomings are, like a lot of rookie quarterbacks, on consistency and decision-making. He’s in a perfect situation in Cleveland, even if I wasn’t sold on them drafting a quarterback. If Kizer gets to grips with the system (moving from shotgun to under center will be another challenge), he could well start in Week 1. He’s only got a pair of below-average starters in

Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler to get past. If he does, he has what looks like a fantastic offensive line to play behind, and a decent run game (including a very good pass-catching back) to help him on his way.

Sometimes everything just fits for a rookie to get in on the action early. The ferocious Giants defense lost one starter from 2016 – defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins. And…well, lookie what we have here. You can mumble about whether to give rookies opportunities, and what it takes to develop a player. You can overthink it.

It’s as simple as this. Hankins’ backup in 2016 was Jay Bromley. Bromley was rated by PFF as the 109th-best defensive interior player in the league. That is, to be blunt, shite. Tomlinson was solid, dependable and above all consistent playing at possibly the toughest college level. Being consistently good is such an important attribute on the defensive interior, Tomlinson should thrive. Though I am rooting for him as he seems like a cool guy, and he’s a fellow trumpet player. We stick together.

Both the Colorado cornerbacks in this year’s draft flew under-the-radar, but much as I like Chidobe Awuzie, Witherspoon’s my favourite. He’s a long, rangy, instinctive corner, stuffed to the brim with speed, agility, athleticism, and one heck of a knack for deflecting passes. If he could tackle, and if this class weren’t so stuffed in the secondary, he’d probably have been a top-16 pick. So the 49ers have a bargain.

They also have no cornerbacks. Tramaine Brock was a starter last year. Then he got charged with domestic violence and child endangerment. So. We’re left with Jimmie Ward, K’Waun Williams, Will Redmond…and you thought the ‘Niners receiver corps was bad. But this is where projecting comes in – I really don’t see Witherspoon as a slot corner. If he’s going to contribute, it’s going to be on the outside, and that’s a trickier place for a rookie to start. Thing is, much as his tackling skills aren’t great, give him deep safety help, let him deflect passes, track running backs and play coverage as well as he did, and he might just be a star.

People gnashed their teeth at the fact New England didn’t pick until this slot, and still picked up a first-round talent. Rivers played at FCS college level, sure, but he was incredible there. Rivers formed an terrifying tandem with Avery Moss (drafted by the Giants this year), with the pass rush propelling Youngstown State to the FCS National Championship game. In three years, Rivers tallied 41 sacks, with 14 coming in 2016. Come draft time, Rivers became a darling of scouting reports everywhere.

If the Patriots had a weak point heading into this season, it was the pass rush. Trey Flowers is reasonable, but Kony Ealy is unreliable, and Rob Ninkovich is getting on in years. Rivers

will have a significant jump in competition, but his measurements suggest Belichick can use him on third down from Week 1, and there’s a simple path towards starting.

The Titans had #2 tight end Anthony Fasano on the field for over 50% of snaps last year before hotfooting to Miami. Those snaps aren’t going to be all picked up by core special-teamer Philip Supernaw. Nor are they by injury- and lack-of-effort-prone Jace Amaro. Sothere’s scope for Smith to play 30-35% of Titans snaps in a 2TE-heavy offense. Smith seems more willing than able blocker, but he’s streets ahead of plenty other top TE prospects from this year (hi, Evan Engram and Bucky Hodges).

Smith is dynamic and determined, and is third in receiving yards in his college programme’s history. Okay, said college is Florida International, but nonetheless for a tight end to achieve that is impressive. And whoever gets the TE2 spot in this Titans offense is going to get opportunity for 300-400 yards and 4-6 touchdowns this season, and playing opposite a wily veteran and able blocker in Delanie Walker will help no end.

A theme of this piece has been opportunity versus ability. When you get this far down, ability is hard to project. But there are few more open opportunities in the league than “New Orleans defensive line”. The Saints have had an abysmal defense for what seems like aeons. The pass rush is possibly the worst of that. Opposite Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, Hendrickson will likely start below veterans Alex Okafor and Hau’oli Kikaha on the depth chart. But Okafor was so-so in four years in Arizona, while Kikaha is recovering from his third career ACL tear.

In any event, 4-3 defensive end is a position that benefits from rotation. Even if, as is likely, Okafor starts, don’t be surprised to see Hendrickson brought in on passing downs from the get-go. ProFootballFocus rated Hendrickson the most productive pass-rusher in college football last year. He recorded 9 sacks and 78 total pressures in 258 pass rush snaps. Before that, he recorded 15 sacks in 2015. Okay, so his college (Florida Atlantic), don’t play at elite college level, but those are big numbers! New Orleans should get this pass-rushing phenom on the field often.

Post-draft roster impacts

Pigskin Podcast's Will Pendleton discovers the winners and losers in the afterglow of the 2017 NFL draft.

With the draft and free agency fully in the rear-view mirror we can finally garner some understanding of what Day-1 rosters will look like. Although training camps and preseason games will confirm starting line-ups, we can now begin to estimate the general role players will take in 2017. Here are three players who have seen their stock rise and three who have seen their stock fall over the offseason.

STOCK DOWN

While his off-the-field affairs are well documented, there is no denying the on-the-field talent of new Bengals running-back Joe Mixon. Although he was taken in the second round, he may just be the best running-back in this draft class over Fournette, Cook and McCaffrey. This spells bad news for one Jeremy Hill, another second round running-back on the Bengals roster. The former LSU tiger has endured a rocky start to his NFL career, bursting out of the gates early yet spluttering out recently with a fumble epidemic still fresh in the mind.

Heading into his third NFL season, Hill will be looking to re-establish himself as an NFL starter, especially with free agency looming potentially at the end of this season for him. However, the draft pick of Mixon clearly demonstrates the lack of trust the Bengals have in Hill and there is a high percentage he is either cut from the team or traded away by the end of the season. Mixon is likely to take rushing opportunities away from Hill and with Giovani Bernard, fellow Bengals receiving running-back, as a lock for the running-back role in the passing game, Hill’s value as a receiver will be even further diminished.

With a new, more talented face ahead of him on the depth chart in Mixon and Bernard reducing his chance at expanding his role as a receiver, Hill is stuck between a rock and a hard place who could see his role diminished to a glorified goal-line back in 2017.

Jonathan Stewart.jpg

From one running-back in trouble from a rookie to another, Stewart, who has been the Panthers bell-cow running-back for years now, could sadly be seeing the end of his time as the main man in Carolina. With the Panthers selecting Christian McCaffrey with the 8th overall pick in the draft, it seems their offense is poised to take a philosophical turn.

A previous smash-mouth, power offense, the ground-and-pound approach of the Panthers appears likely to change to one more of precision and creativity. With Cam Newton taking a historic beating by defences last season, it is likely the Panthers watched the damage Tom Brady and James White did in the Superbowl and are attempting to recreate the same success in Charlotte. A dynamic running and receiving threat like McCaffrey will allow Newton to dump off passes quickly and avoid taking unnecessary contact, limiting his injuries. Stewart, an accomplished power back, has never excelled in the passing game and so it is likely McCaffrey has a stranglehold on that role and will also eat into Stewart’s carry total.

At age 30 and with an injury history as long as any, the Panthers are realising that J-Stew’s time as the lead back in Carolina is over. Stewart, a player who got his own start in the NFL through replacing a veteran running-back in DeAngelo Williams, also is likely to see this coming.

It certainly is a bad time to be a veteran running-back. With the deepest running-back class in recent memory entering the NFL, countless veterans who would have previously been viewed as starters are seeing their role lessen and lessen. One such player is Ryan Mathews.

Mathews has undergone a storied chapter of his career with the Eagles and has time and time again come out on the wrong side of the fall-out. In 2015 when Mathews signed with the Eagles he was assured to be their No.1 RB. Days after he signed the Eagles then also signed DeMarco Murray and a disastrous season for both players began. Since Murray’s trade to the Titans, Mathews was once again a lock to be the bell-cow back in Philly until he was struck by injuries. To cut a long story short, Mathews has not rushed or had the opportunity to rush for 1000+ yards since 2013.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Eagles added another running-back to their roster in the draft, this time the all-time NCAA career rushing yardage leader, Donnel Pumphrey. The Eagles currently have Mathews, Pumphrey, Wendell Smallwood and stud receiving RB Darren Sproles all on their roster. The Eagles have never been afraid to use a running-back committee approach and it seems as if in 2017 they will turn to this tactic once again. The only solace for Mathews is that he is the only big running-back on the team and so will likely receive all goal-line work, rushing for 8 touchdowns last season.

STOCK UP

PhilipRivers.jpg

Even though he may still be reeling from the team’s move from San Diego to Los Angeles, when Rivers looks over his roster sheet a smile is sure to cross his face. Rivers has always loved to throw the ball a lot and now he may just be surrounded by the best pass-catching corps in the NFL. Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams are both capable of 1000+ receiving yard seasons and with rookie WR and jump-ball specialist in Mike Williams locked in for redzone targets and speedster Travis Benjamin capable of blasting off 100+ yard games with ease, Rivers will be licking his lips, as should fantasy owners. And as if that wasn’t enough, Los Angeles is now home to two stellar tight ends in Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry, both players who had great redzone success in 2016.

The Chargers have been hit by injuries more than any team in the league for the last 3 seasons and surely it is time for that to end. If the offensive line can stay healthy than nothing should be holding back Rivers and the Chargers this season, especially with a revamped, potentially top-10 defence too. The emergence of Melvin Gordon as a top-5 running-back also will relieve pressure from Rivers and prevent opposing defences dropping extra men into coverage. With one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, Rivers will be hoping to kick off the Chargers reign in L.A. with a bang.

With not much else going right this offseason in San Francisco, one man who is sure to be happy is Carlos Hyde. While the 49ers may not have the future answer at QB on their roster, they certainly do at the running-back position.

Hyde is a perfect fit for new head coach Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking run scheme, a scheme also run by Jim Harbaugh during the last era of 49ers success. With a running style similar to Frank Gore’s in his prime, 49ers fans will be pleased to see another power back pounding down Levi’s Stadium. With the absence of any real threat in the passing game, either at quarterback or wide receiver, Hyde will likely be the focal-point of the 49ers offense and with very little on the depth chart behind him, only an injury could stop him this season.

Hyde has a similar skill-set to that of Devonta Freeman in Atlanta and there is plenty of evidence for what Shanahan could do with a back like Freeman during his time with the Falcons. Hyde is poised for a huge year and the 49ers and Shanahan would be wise to ride him all the way.

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Remember before when we talked about how stacked the Bengals backfield was? That’s only going to make life easier for Dalton, a fact that is important as the Bengals have recently allowed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL to dilapidate. A committee of stud running-backs will alleviate the pressure on Dalton and also provide dump-off options for him. However, the reason Dalton has seen his stock rise is because of the Bengals offseason additions in the passing game.

A.J. Green is without question a top-5 wide receiver in the NFL and the Bengals have never had a losing season when Green has 1000+ receiving yards. Tyler Eifert has showed when healthy he can rival Rob Gronkowski as the best redzone threat in the league and with speedy first round WR John Ross playing opposite Green, Dalton will not be short of passing options. The Bengals offense has always worked best when they play with two solid receivers, a feat they now have, and so the Bengals could be ready to return to the playoffs once again.

Don’t forget that only a season ago Andy Dalton was garnering MVP consideration before his thumb injury. With an offense that’s ready to rock and a seasoned coaching staff, Dalton and the Bengals could be facing a similar season to that of Rivers and the Chargers.

Did the Saints Make the Right Call With Cooks?

Pigskin Podcast and The Inside Zone UK's Nick Dunkeyson assesses whether or not the Saints took the correct offer for Brandin Cooks...

Brandin Cooks.jpg

Trades! Trades are fun! We’re deep in the dregs of free agency right now, which mostly involves reflux reactions to seeing your team signed a cornerback who can’t run for $7m a year. Plus ça change. So for your light relief, a few teams have been trading players or picks, or players and picks! And this gives us the opportunity to delve into the mind of the general manager, and to try and come back unviolated. 

No trade this year has yet been as interesting as the Brandin Cooks trade. So I’m going to take a look at what the trade was, why New Orleans went with New England’s offer, and what it all means. I may even mention Malcolm Butler. 

For those who might've missed it, the Saints sent to-be-fourth-year receiver Cooks to the Patriots for a first-round and compensatory third-round pick. The Patriots get the Saints’ fourth-round pick in return, too. So, New England have a new, very good wide receiver, but no draft pick this year until the third round. New Orleans, meanwhile, has five picks in the first three rounds, but only two good wide receivers (sorry, Brandon Coleman). 

Before delving into New Orleans and their options, let's delve into Bill Bellichick's mind, shall we? (Yes, it's icky in here. No, you can leave at any time.) Why did the Pats make this trade? Yes, Belichick’s made a cottage industry of being unpredictable and inscrutable when it comes to roster moves.  But...

As Tom Brady bounds towards his 40th birthday, he becomes more and more an outlier in quarterback longevity, ergo, New England want to surround him with as much talent as possible. Cooks is only under contract for one more year, though options and then the option of a franchise meaning New England can keep him for three. So that’s three years the Pats will now have a top-drawer deep threat alongside a very good “slot-plus” receiver (Edelman), an elite tight end (Gronkowski), good complementary pieces (Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell) and the best set of receiving running backs in the league. At this rate, Tom Brady might throw the ball every play! 

I suspect it’s mostly just New England doing what they do, evolving while already on top to keep a step ahead. Cooks is superior to all those I just listed by Gronkowski (and maybe Edelman), so he’s straight into the starting line-up. The rich get richer? Well, yeah. A luxury signing? I don’t really think so. Especially because he fills a role currently only sporadically occupied. Plus it means they can cut Danny Amendola. Although there's a decent chance Amendola could pull a hamstring while making his way onto waivers.

Anyway, enough feeling dirty writing about the Pats and onto New Orleans. 

New Orleans had three teams bidding for Cooks, once they made it known he was available: New England, Philadelphia, and Tennessee. We know what New England offered, we have a good idea of what Tennessee offered, and we’ve heard rumours (somewhat debunked) of what Philadelphia offered. For the purposes of this piece, let’s take the knows, suspects, and rumours, to analyse the Saints’ decision-making. 

So here’s what we think was offered: 

  • New England: first-round pick (#32), third-round compensatory pick (#103), in exchange for Cooks and fourth-round pick (#118, though this pick will be forfeiting due to that ball deflating scandal thingy). 
  • Tennessee: Per NOLA.com, first round pick swap (New Orleans gains #5, Tennessee #11), and a third-round pick (#83 or #100 – let’s assume #100) in exchange for Cooks.  
  • Philadelphia: Per ProFootballTalk, a third-round pick (#74), a fourth-round pick (assume the compensatory, so #139), and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Note that the accuracy of this has been…debated, shall we say. For the purposes of analysing what goes on in a team’s mind during trade discussions however, let’s treat it as accurate. 

This is interesting! New Orleans had three genuinely different approaches they could go for. To summarise, then. New England’s essentially gives a late-first-round pick. You’d be hoping to pick up either a risky potential game changer or a solid starter at that position.  Tennessee’s offers a chance to pick up a more elite player in the first round, and a mid-round pick where you’d hope to pick up a contributor. Philadelphia’s offer was a solid starter (and a former Saints player) and a couple of picks where you’d hope to get contributors. So what would accepting each one mean the Saints were after? 

 

Philadelphia’s Offer 

Starting with the Philadelphia offer. Were the Saints to have accepted that it’d send a fairly clear signal. That would be: we’re broadly satisfied with our defensive starters and impact players; we think Malcolm Jenkins can start for us and play a heck of a lot of snaps; we need a bit more depth. I can field this one. There is no way on God’s green earth that the Saints are broadly satisfied with their defensive starters. There are maybe…five they could be happy with? (For reference: Nick Fairley, Sheldon Rankins, Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro, Delvin Breaux. Maybe six if you’re okay starting Vonn Bell.) Accepting this trade would’ve sent a signal that it was more about getting rid of Brandin Cooks than upping defensive quality significantly. So, an easy rejection. 

Tennessee’s Offer 

How about that Tennessee offer? Personally, I quite like it. Accepting that offer would say: there is an elite player in the draft we’re specifically targeting, that we think can make a massive difference to our team. It’d also say: we could use a little more depth in our roster than we already had.  

Who would be potentially in play at 5 but gone by 11? Or rather, what position groups? At 5, you’d likely have at least one of the star safeties – Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker. You’d have a choice of all edge rushers other than Myles Garrett and probably Solomon Thomas. You might even have Jonathan Allen or Leonard Fournette. Compare that to who we’re looking at with the 11th pick: one of the top two cornerbacks – Marshon Lattimore and Marlon Humphrey – will likely be available. As will a top linebacker – Rueben Foster maybe? Pass rushers – well, you’d hope one or two of Haason Reddick, Derek Barnett and Taco Charlton will be on the board.  

What all that talent looks like is this: you’ve got maybe 2 or 3 utterly elite players in the draft (for me: Garrett, Allen, Hooker), then about 12-15 that look like really good picks. There’s a chance to get one of those utterly elite players at 5, but if you don’t, then there’s potentially not much difference in quality between a #5 pick and a #11 pick – it’s that deep at the top. So, maybe the Saints felt that this year, the difference between the two picks wasn’t that great, so they rejected it. 

 

New England’s Offer 

(This will obviously change if New Orleans ends up trading their #11 overall pick for Malcolm Butler. If they do, I’m starting a Kickstarter to buy 1,000 party hats with “IDIOT” written on them for Saints GM Mickey Loomis.) 

Right now, Drew Brees carries the Saints. He’s also 38 years old. That body is going to show signs of decline sooner rather than later, and right now the Saints have no succession plan in any area. A succession plan at quarterback is a crapshoot, but building a young, exciting, deep defense seems like the best way to both a) soften the blow when Brees leaves, and b) help make the most of his last few years by not requiring the team live and die by his passing. 

The 2017 draft appears to have a lot of quality players graded in the first and second rounds, particularly across areas of need for New England: the secondary, linebackers, and pass rush. The Saints are trying to build for the future and change themselves. Getting an extra first-round pick means if a player’s good, you have him for five years guaranteed before you even have to start thinking franchise tag. That’s key to filling your roster with solid starters.  

So you’ve got someone you expect to be a good starter, to improve your defense. An extra third-round pick also means either a decent starter or a very useful rotational player. And all you’re giving up for this is a wide receiver – an excellent one, sure, but you’ve got two very good receivers on your roster including one entering his second year who looks fantastic. 

 

So What Would You Have Done, O Wise Sage One?

I think I’d have taken the New England offer too, even though dealing with Bill Belichick is like challenging the Grim Reaper to a game of chess. The Saints clearly wanted rid of Brandin Cooks, though I’m not sure why. For what it’s worth, the rumour that dressing-room kingpin Drew Brees just didn’t like him is my favourite. 

So what represented the best value for New Orleans? The chance to get more players, near the top of the draft. Chasing a superstar, like through Tennessee’s offer, would’ve left fewer holes filled. Taking Malcolm Jenkins back? Well, he basically resurrected his career leaving New Orleans for Philly. Going back to the Bayou probably wouldn’t have worked out for anyone. 

 

What Does That Even MEAN, McBain? 

 

We can read a bunch of things into this trade. Some are discussed above, some are nuggets thrown out seemingly at random, for your delectation. So, things we can discern from this trade: 

  • New Orleans realise they are missing a good many pieces from a functional defense, but are stacked with receiving talent. 
  • New Orleans knows that if they don’t get a functional defense sometime soon, having all the offense in the world’ll mean nothing if Drew Brees has to put up 40 points every game. 
  • Understandably, given these two things, they’re prioritising having enough good starters over having a few elite starters. 
  • New England won the Super Bowl, and had one of the best free agencies of any team. With anyone but them, you’d think Sod’s Law would guarantee an 8-8 season. Alas, no. 
  • Titans GM Jon Robinson is good at structuring tempting offers that slightly favour Tennessee. This one got turned down, but others will be accepted. 
  • Tennessee was probably targeting Mike Williams or OJ Howard with the #11 pick. They’ll likely be gone at #18. Even with Brandin Cooks they’d still have needed one more receiving threat.

We can’t know anything about Philadelphia as we don’t know what they offered. But it’s telling that they, Tennessee and New England were the three teams in for Cooks. All have an aggressive policy towards trading and general managering (it’s a word). But whether it's a coach as a GM (in Belichick's case), an executive enjoying his return to power (Howie Roseman in Philly) or a young exec making a name for himself (Robinson), these are three teams that are making free agency fun!

 

2017 Fantasy Football Breakout Candidates

Pigskin Podcast's resident fantasy expert Will Pendleton of Fantasyfootballhelpers.com  provides an early rundown of this year's potential breakout fantasy stars.

Success in fantasy football is largely predicated on identifying lesser known players who are primed for a monster statistical season. Predicting breakout campaigns however can be treacherous as placing your faith in a certain player can either burn your opponents or burn you. However, as the saying goes, “no risk it, no biscuit” and so here are some candidates who could potentially be fantasy stars in waiting…

Carlos Hyde.jpg

In the midst of a troubled franchise, Carlos Hyde’s star still shines bright; a true diamond in the rough. Hyde was one of the few bright-spots on a pockmarked 2016 49ers roster and it seems as if his luck is about to change.

2017 brought the arrival of offensive genius Kyle Shanahan as the new Head Coach in San Francisco and with him his track record of turning running backs into super-stars. Examine the team Shanahan most recently departed in the Atlanta Falcons for example. Shanahan’s play-action offense completely transformed Devonta Freeman into a fantasy scoring machine, finishing as the No. 1 and No. 7 fantasy running back respectively in the two seasons he spent working with Shanahan.

The same fate is more than likely to befall Hyde also. A play-action offense like Shanahan’s allows new or inexperienced quarterbacks (which the 49ers are likely to have) to gain depth from the line of scrimmage giving them time in the pocket. This allows for a calmer QB and therefore a more functional passing attack whilst relying heavily on the run game to sell play fakes for the quarterback. This all hints towards a consistent workload for Hyde and his one-cut running style fits perfectly with Shanahan’s zone-blocking system.

In only 13 games last season on a torrid team that needed to pass the ball to get back into games, Hyde still managed to rush for nearly 1000 yards and scored 9 total touchdowns, finishing as the RB14 (14th best fantasy running back). In an offense which will be reliant on him instead of his quarterback next season, Hyde is ready to explode.

Jameis Winston.jpg

Last season Winston watched as his counterpart drafted one spot behind him, Marcus Mariota, became one of 2016’s fantasy darlings due to his sublime redzone touchdown to interception ratio. Interceptions are a statistic that has plagued Winston’s entire football career but with another season under his belt Winston will be ready to take full command over his offense.

If there is one thing that we know about Jameis Winston it is that he loves to throw the football. In his two seasons in the NFL Winston already has two 4,000+ passing yard seasons and has thrown 50 touchdowns too for good measure. Those are some impressive stats for a young quarterback and with super-star wide receiver Mike Evans at his side Winston’s numbers are primed to sky-rocket even higher this year. Recent free agent addition WR Desean Jackson is the perfect compliment to Mike Evans. Jackson brings speed to a receiving corps built mainly on size. Jackson’s deep threat ability could add even more touchdown potential to Winston and will almost certainly bump up his already impressive yardage totals.

Throughout his short NFL career Winston has proven himself as a solid fantasy quarterback, ending his seasons as the QB14 and QB17 respectively. Tampa Bay seems to be on the rise however, due in large part to their explosive offense with Winston at the helm, and so too does Winston’s fantasy ceiling. On his day Winston has the ability to outscore any team in the league and as a better team all around in 2017, Winston and the Bucs will be in more scoring opportunities and therefore more fantasy scoring opportunities.

Prosise’s star burnt both bright and quick in 2016. The rookie receiving back wasn’t properly involved in the Seahawks offense until week 9 of last season (excluding his 103 scrimmage yard performance against the New Orleans Saints in week 4) where he first saw 5+ carries. In fact Prosise’s season as a whole would have been viewed as a complete disaster were it not for a two game stretch from weeks 9-10 where he decimated the fantasy landscape.

In week 9 against the recently crowned New England Patriots, Prosise changed 17 carries into 66 yards and caught 7 out of 7 balls for 87 yards, giving him a 153 scrimmage yard stat-line for the game.

The following week against the Philadelphia Eagles Prosise outdid himself again. With only 4 carries Prosise racked up 76 yards for a 19 yards per carry average while scoring both a rushing and receiving touchdown.

Prosise was quickly the hottest name in fantasy and owners far and wide were lining up humungous trade offers to snag him. However, Prosise unfortunately suffered a season ending injury during his week 10 match-up against the Eagles and so the CJ Prosise fantasy hype train was halted in its tracks just as it was gaining speed.

However, that train is about to pick up steam again as Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll recently stated that Prosise and Thomas Rawls will openly compete for the starting running back role in Seattle. Even if Prosise does not win the top job, his talents will obviously be installed into the Seahawks offense due to his effectiveness last season against two top-10 defences. Prosise’s forte is receiving, in which he has a significant advantage over Rawls, and so with a stranglehold on the receiving back role and a likely increase in carries too, the CJ Prosise train is ready to depart the station once again.

For as long as many can recall, the Chargers tight end position has been fully monopolised by one man, Antonio Gates. However, it seems the bell may have tolled for the 14 year veteran as finally the Chargers appear to have settled on a new face to replace Gates, Hunter Henry.

The Chargers have often brought in other tight ends to potentially follow on from Gates, however he has outperformed them time and time again. Unfortunately for the 8 time Pro-Bowler and 5 time All-Pro, in 2016 he was the one being outperformed.

Although Gates finished ahead of Henry (by only one spot) in fantasy scoring for tight ends, both Chargers TEs had 90 fantasy points and Henry in fact scored more touchdowns than Gates. Eight touchdowns for a rookie tight end is impressive particularly as the position has one of the toughest transitions from college to the NFL. With a full offseason completed and a further developed chemistry with quarterback Philip Rivers, Henry should be ready to take his career onwards and take over the Chargers tight end position fully, a position which has always heralded great fantasy success.

Both Rivers and the Chargers want to run a pass heavy offense, and even when surrounded by poor talent, Rivers in particular is able to rise above it and still post incredible fantasy statistics. A pass happy offense is any pass catcher’s best friend and that is good news for Henry and fantasy owners alike.

After a move from San Diego to Los Angeles the Chargers may be looking to rebrand themselves as the LA team with some actual offensive potential (sorry Rams fans), and this may come in the form of a fresh new look at a tired position. Los Angeles is always focused on the next big thing, for the Chargers it certainly seems as if that could be Hunter Henry.

Will Fuller.jpg

It is strange to think that at one point in 2016 it was a common opinion that the Texans offense could potentially be one of the top units in the league. Granted, then the 2016 season happened, but it is agreed that the potential was there at least.

A large proportion of this hype landed upon the shoulders of first round rookie WR Will Fuller. Fuller, a speedy deep threat out of Notre Dame, was the perfect complement to 2015’s stand out receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. With Hopkins commanding double teams, Fuller’s speed would give defenses fits and the two would tear apart the NFL, right?

Well through the first two weeks of the season it appeared that this would be the case. Hopkins, Fuller and even RB Lamar Miller got off to tremendous starts to the fantasy season. Fuller flew straight out the gates with back to back 100+ receiving yard performances and looked unstoppable.

Sadly, the NFL quickly caught up with the man throwing Fuller the ball, Brock Osweiler, and his dazzling stretch, much like Prosise’s, soon burnt out. A combination of injuries and quarterback inaccuracy rendered much of the remainder of Fuller’s rookie campaign effectively useless, with him only topping 60 receiving yards again once for the rest of the season.

However, Houston Head Coach Bill O’Brien is one of the best quarterback coaches in the NFL and is likely to get much better play out of whoever is starting under-centre once September rolls around. This bodes well for the entirety of Houston’s offensive staff and yet due to his late season irrelevance Fuller is likely to go forgotten. This however acts as a perfect storm in fantasy football as Fuller has the potential to become an upper echelon No. 2 wide receiver, such as Davante Adams or Amari Cooper, and yet is likely to be available in the later in the draft due to a multitude of reasons.

Oddly enough the Wall Street stock exchange and fantasy football are one in the same in some aspects. The underlying philosophy of both is to buy low and sell high. Will Fuller’s stock at the minute could not be much lower. Buying low in fantasy will never ever hurt you. However buying low and striking oil could hurt the rest of your fantasy league. 

2016 Fantasy Football's Surprise Stars and Busts

Fantasy football is always full of surprises. For example in week 6 Case Keenum threw for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns finishing as the QB2 (2nd best QB in fantasy scoring). However, we're not focusing on one-week-wonders like Case Keenum. Instead Pigskin Podcast writer Will Pendleton takes a deep-dive into the 2016 breakout stars who shocked the fantasy world...
 

Surprise Stars

The 2016 NFL season cannot be discussed without mentioning Dak Prescott. The rookie sensation finished fifth in total quarterback touchdowns with 29 while only throwing 4 interceptions. Prescott had a campaign that most veteran quarterbacks would be proud of that helped him lock up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. 

Finishing as the QB6, it could be argued that Prescott’s fantasy season outperformed what he actually achieved out on the field. Considering Prescott had an ADP (Average draft position in fantasy drafts) in the 13th round this offseason, the top 6 quarterback campaign he turned in gave you tremendous value if you drafted him. Prescott’s consistent play week after week allowed you to plug him into your line-up without having to worry about your quarterback, a luxury most fantasy owners did not have. 

Coming into the 2016 fantasy season many fantasy experts were scared of drafting DeMarco Murray in the early rounds. Coming off a terrible stint in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly and now sharing a backfield in Tennessee with Heisman winning running back Derrick Henry, most did not expect Murray to perform well or have a consistent workload.  

Murray however, had different ideas and thrived in Tennessee’s ‘Exotic Smashmouth’ offense, finishing the season with over 1600 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns to go with one 10 yard touchdown pass too. Murray surprised us all this year and finished 2016 as the RB5 and was arguably the best fantasy running back in the entire NFL for the first half of the season.  

Adams has been a sore-spot for many fantasy expert over the years. The consensus thinking was Adams was to have a breakout season in 2015. This certainly did not happen and his lack of success burned a lot fantasy football fans. For this reason his draft stock fell in 2016 and for those lucky fantasy owners who drafted him late, Adams certainly outperformed his ADP. 

With Jordy Nelson’s health in question for most of the season (even though Nelson still finished as the best WR in fantasy this year), Adams became Aaron Rodgers’ go-to-guy, catching 12 touchdowns on his way to finishing as the WR6. This was the breakout season many had predicted and been waiting for, however, no-one predicted Adams would catch the same amount of touchdowns as Mike Evans and Antonio Brown while finishing just 3 yards short of a 1000 receiving yard season.  

If it wasn’t for fellow rookie running back and fantasy stud Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard’s great season would have gained more headlines. Howard began the 2016 season buried on Chicago’s depth chart and had to earn the starting role. Considering Howard was only named the starter a few games into the season, the fact that he racked up over 1,600 scrimmage yards without a full 16 game stretch is even more impressive.  

Howard burst onto the fantasy scene once given a consistent workload and was quickly one of the must-add players via the waiver wire. Rushing for over 100 yards in 7 of his 12 games as a starter, Howard has shown that he has not only a high ceiling for fantasy production but also a high floor which is arguably more important in season long fantasy formats.  

Even though Howard finished as the RB9, he will likely be drafted extremely early in next season’s drafts. To take Howard in the first two rounds however he would need to ramp up his touchdown production. 7 total touchdowns doesn’t cut it as a top fantasy running back (typically top backs score between 15-20 total touchdowns) and on weeks where Howard didn’t reach the endzone he usually produced fairly average fantasy scores. 

New Orleans’ offences have been nothing short of a fantasy factory since Drew Brees became a Saint and this year was no different. Both Saints running backs, Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower, had very solid fantasy seasons and with Drew Brees leading the passing attack to another 5000+ yard campaign, you would expect that the New Orleans wide receivers put up big numbers. The No. 1 man in New Orleans this year was rookie WR and former Ohio State Buckeye, Michael Thomas.  

Thomas’ sure hands pulled in 92 of his 122 targets for over 1,100 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns, finishing as the WR9. Much like Dak Prescott, Thomas’ ADP was astoundingly low this season, averaging around rounds 12-13, and so he provided incredible value. Not enough is being made of Thomas’ success and with another offseason with Drew Brees under his belt you can expect Thomas to improve on an already stellar year.  

Fantasy Flops: 

On the flip side however, there are always a few big name players who seriously under-perform on expectations and sadly often lead to the downfall of a fantasy season. 

Lamar Miller was an offseason darling for fantasy owners this year. The Texans offense had the potential to be one of the best in the NFL and with a shaky quarterback under-centre in Brock Osweiler, Miller was guaranteed a big workload.  

Miller did in fact receive the workload of a bell-cow-back but unfortunately only managed to turn 268 carries into 1,073 rushing yards. This together with a 4.0 ypc (yards per carry) average and only 6 total touchdowns combines to make Miller, a first round pick in August, one of the biggest fantasy disappointments of the season.  

The argument can be made that opposing defences were focused on the Houston running game as their passing game was so poor. However, the Texans offensive line is one of the best in the league, and so Miller’s lack of production is almost entirely on him. 

Miller had everything he needed to make the leap and become a top fantasy running back this season but just simply failed to do so. LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman were both drafted after Miller this year, both received smaller workloads than Miller this year and yet both thoroughly outscored Miller this year by over 60 fantasy points. It is safe to assume Miller will not be taken in the first round again in 2017.  

As bad as Lamar Miller was last season, another first round running back performed even worse - Todd Gurley.  
 
Gurley was part of the worst offense in the NFL but he bears some responsibility for that too. Gurley, like Miller, was set up for a huge workload and particularly in the redzone and yet he converted 278 carries into 885 rushing yards for a 3.2 ypc average. That is not what was expected from a top 5 fantasy pick.  

Gurley didn’t rush for over 85 yards in a single game this season, a feat he achieved seven times during his 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. For a player who predicates his game on using his power to break off runs, Gurley looked like a different player this season, he failed to see holes and lacked the ambition to power through tackles and gain tough yards.  

The most characteristic stat of Gurley’s struggles this season is that he scored the same amount of fantasy points as Matt Forte, a player who due to injury did not play significant snaps since week 10 of last season.  

Gurley’s woefully below par season is put into perspective when you consider he scored the same amount of fantasy points as Matt Forte. Gurley, a bell-cow running back and bona fide NFL superstar, could not outscore a player who missed 2 whole games and played through half the season with a torn meniscus in his knee.   

After an incredible season in which Robinson finished as the WR4 with 1400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, this was not the season Allen Robinson wanted to post nor the one fantasy owners expected. His 2015 play made him a borderline first round pick this season but his 2016 production made him one of the biggest flops of the year.  

With a stat line of 883 yards and 6 touchdowns, Robinson nearly halved his production from 2015. Robinson’s struggles can be mostly attributed to the struggles of his well maligned quarterback, Blake Bortles, who had has been plagued by mechanical issues this year resulting in inconsistent, inaccurate passes. Robinson also ran the deep routes more than any receiver in the league in 2015 which was changed this season and so his best talents were under-utilised.  

However, even though Bortles struggled on the field he still finished as the QB9 and so fantasy owners still managed to gain value from him. Allen Robinson had no such luck however, finishing up the year as the WR30 and cementing his place as a 2016 fantasy flop. 

The tight end position as a whole in 2016 was one of the worst overall performances by an entire position group for many years. To put it in perspective, the top 4 fantasy defences all outscored the No. 1 tight end and by a sizable margin.  

Travis Kelce was this season’s TE1 essentially by default due to Rob Gronkowski’s season ending injuries and a general lack of production from the position. Kelce’s inconsistent production strangely also resembles that of a deep threat wide receiver – he was boom or bust. Depending on the week Kelce would either produce more than 15 fantasy points or less than 5.  

Fantasy production from tight ends is dependent on touchdowns and with only six tight ends scoring more than 6 touchdowns this season, there was not a single tight end that stood out in terms of season long fantasy production. When guys like Cameron Brate, Kyle Rudolph and Jack Doyle (historically unknown and unproductive players) all finish inside the top 12 tight ends, you begin to understand why fantasy experts began to refer to 2016 as “the year of the tight end apocalypse”. 

Eli Manning.jpg

For a guy who was drafted over Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott and Derek Carr, Eli Manning seriously underperformed this season, both on the field and in fantasy.  

With the addition of the dynamic slot receiver Sterling Shepard to compliment a top three fantasy player in Odell Beckham Jr, Eli Manning was the hot name in fantasy quarterbacks before the season began. However, this rise in status did not coincide with a rise in performance. 

Out of the top 20 quarterbacks in fantasy, Eli Manning had the 3rd most turnovers, 20 in total, and finished as the QB21. Falling out of the top 15 quarterbacks in fantasy effectively means that a player is unusable to a team. The only regular starting quarterbacks that finished beneath Eli this season were Alex Smith, Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz.  

Manning is a shining example of why it is paramount to wait on drafting a quarterback when drafting your fantasy team. By waiting until after round 10 there are still stud quarterbacks with plenty of fantasy potential available but, if you waste a high pick on a QB who underperforms, such as with Eli Manning this year, a large proportion of your team is thrown off.