Monday August 17th, 2015

We know that a handful of players considered rock-solid picks in August will go bust every season. Often, winning your league doesn’t just come down to the players you draft—it’s also about the players you avoid. The following NFC players could all disappoint their owners, and potentially scuttle entire fantasy campaigns as busts like Montee Ball, Zac Stacy and Doug Martin did a year ago.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Eagles

I’ve been making the case against Murray for the better part of the summer, and now it’s time to go on record and call last year’s top running back a bust for this season. He’s unlikely to be a total bust along the lines of Montee Ball last year, but I would have an awfully hard time taking him at his average draft position of 15, higher than Rob Gronkowski, Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson. When I look at Murray, I see him surrounded by red flags.

• Fantasy football top 300 | POSITION PRIMERS: QB | RB | WR | TE | K | D/ST

Heading into 2014, Murray was widely viewed as one of the most injury-prone backs in the league. He finally stayed healthy for an entire year, riding his newfound health and an elite offensive line to an 1,845-yard season. Unfortunately for his new team, the Cowboys also rode him into the ground. Including Dallas’s two playoff games, Murray had 497 touches last year, the fourth most in NFL history. I’m not crazy about betting on a famously fragile running back coming off one of the busiest seasons ever seen.

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Secondly, the Eagles’ offense may be potent, but this is still a new system for Murray. Continuity typically works in a player’s favor, and Murray won’t have that this season. He also won’t have Tony Romo or Dez Bryant to help take opposing defenses' focus off the run game. Jordan Matthews is a potential breakout receiver, but he’s nowhere near Bryant’s stature and won’t be by the end of this season, either. The gulf between Romo and Sam Bradford is even wider. Romo’s presence definitely had a role in Murray’s huge campaign, and Bradford won't offer the same level of help.

Finally, don't expect Murray to get the same volume of carries this year. Murray virtually had the entire backfield to himself last season. Ryan Mathews got $5 million in guaranteed money when he signed with the Eagles in March. It’s hard to imagine the team doing that deal if Mathews was just going to spell Murray every once in a while. Don’t expect Murray to approach 449 regular-season touches as he did in what turned out to be his final season in Dallas.

Murray is the 10th back off the board in a typical draft, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t finish the year in the top 15 at the position. Given his ADP, however, it’s going to be hard for him to turn a profit for his fantasy owners. Gronkowski, Nelson and Johnson would all be better selections in that spot.

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Joseph Randle, RB, Cowboys

Murray's likely replacement in Dallas runs a similar risk of being overvalued. Randle is expected to start after acting as Murray’s primary backup in 2014. Any back who stepped into that role would have been intriguing to the fantasy community. The Cowboys brought back all five starters on the line that paved the way for Murray and ranked as the second-best run-blocking unit in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus. On top of that, Randle was explosive in his limited role in 2014, racking up 343 yards and three scores on 51 carries, good for 6.7 yards per tote. It’s easy to see why Randle has become a favored target among mid-tier running backs.

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Randle's bust potential is largely out of his control. His ADP of 31.8 makes him the 32nd player off the board in a typical draft. That price reflects a player who has already broken out, not one who might do so this season. Basically, selecting Randle at that spot equates to betting on him producing about 70% of what Murray did last year, which comes out to about 1,300 yards with nine touchdowns on the ground. That seems almost impossible. Randle isn’t going to come anywhere near the 392 carries Murray got last season. Not only are the Cowboys unlikely to have the same confidence in him that they had in Murray, but he’s going to share the backfield with Darren McFadden. Randle is almost certain to give up more than the meager 81 carries Murray ceded to his backups last season. Owners shouldn’t assume that Randle will be able to do what Murray did simply because of the structure around him in Dallas. He can undoubtedly be a strong fantasy option, but his draft-day price makes it nearly impossible for him to be a profitable player.

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Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints

The same theory that’s driving Randle’s rise in ADP is pushing Cooks up draft boards. Cooks has a 34.6 ADP, which means he’s the 14th receiver selected in typical drafts, ahead of Kelvin Benjamin, DeAndre Hopkins and Jordan Matthews. The thinking behind Cooks's rise is completely logical: With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills out of New Orleans, there will be a ton of targets to go around in the Saints’ passing game. As the team’s new No. 1 receiver, Cooks will likely get a ton of those targets. Unfortunately, he’s going to need to be wildly efficient on them to justify his ADP.

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Cooks played 10 games before a thumb injury ended his rookie season, finishing with 53 catches for just 550 yards and three touchdowns. While Cooks was an effective receiver on short and intermediate routes, he didn’t do much damage down the field: just six of Cooks’s 70 targets traveled at least 20 yards in the air. He did catch four of them for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but the fact that he got so few is concerning. Cooks’s lack of production down the field makes it hard to believe that he can meet his draft-day price, unless you think he’s going to have a completely different role this year. Cooks gained just 1.56 yards per route run last year, which ranked 50th in the league and was worse than Jarius Wright, Kenny Britt and Devin Hester. None of those players is anywhere near Cooks’s level, and yet he kept their company in this particular efficiency stat last season.

We’re looking at yet another value bust. Cooks can definitely be a WR2 this year, but the price it takes to get him suggests he has real WR1 potential. The opportunity cost is just too high for a player who may not be a real threat down the field.

Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals

Ellington had an opportunity to take Arizona’s starting gig and run with it last year, but poor performance and injury kept him from doing so. He missed four games due to injury and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry while he was on the field, totaling 660 yards on 201 carries. Ellington’s small stature is always mentioned in any argument against his fantasy prospects, but it’s more than just size—he’s 5’9” and 199 pounds—that limits his upside.

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According to Pro Football Focus, Ellington was one of the worst running backs in the league last year. The analytics site gave him an overall grade of -7.5, which rated 50th out of 57 qualifying backs. Only Knile Davis was worse as a pure runner among that group. The Cardinals’ offensive line didn’t help, and Carson Palmer’s season-ending knee injury hurt the entire unit, but there’s no explaining away how bad Ellington was as a runner last year.

There’s reason to believe Ellington will be better this year than he was in 2014. The Cardinals made some necessary upgrades to the offensive line, signing Mike Iupati and A.Q. Shipley. With Palmer back under center, the offense should be much better than it was during the second half of last season. Ellington is unquestionably an explosive athlete, but he’s likely a better fit in a timeshare role. He can turn that role into a meaningful fantasy season, but it’s going to be hard for him to justify his 43.6 ADP.

Drew Brees, QB, Saints

Brees’s decline has been greatly overstated. In a supposedly down season last year, he still threw for 4,952 yards, 7.51 yards per attempt and 33 touchdowns. Brees could probably roll out of bed an hour before every Saints game this season and still push 5,000 yards. At the same time, he isn’t working with the same collection of weapons he has had for most of his New Orleans career and lost his best red-zone target when the team traded Graham to Seattle.

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It’s unclear who will take over as his primary target once the Saints are inside the 20, but it’s safe to say that guy won’t be as dangerous as Graham. He also may not have a serious deep threat. The team’s top two receivers, Cooks and Marques Colston, had just 19 total deep targets last season. They caught 10 of those for a little more than 300 yards and three scores. Stills, the Saints' best deep threat last year, had nine deep receptions for 370 yards and two touchdowns. In other words, Brees lost his best red-zone and deep targets from a year ago.

The Saints’ brain trust has also said the team will run more often than it typically has in the Brees era, and that’s starting to look like more than lip service. Ben Watson was listed as the starting tight end in the team’s first preseason game. He’s the superior blocking tight end on the roster, while Josh Hill is the better receiver. Brees will still throw the ball plenty in 2015, but his five-year streak of 650-pass seasons may finally come to an end.

This is yet again a case of mistaken value. Brees’s ADP of 59 has him off the board just a couple spots behind Ben Roethlisberger and well ahead of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Eli Manning. This season, the likely future Hall of Famer should produce closer to that latter group.

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