Thursday August 11th, 2016

It’s hard for one superstar player—whether it’s a first-round pick, mid-round breakout, or late-round sleeper—to carry a fantasy owner to a title. An early-round bust, however, can singlehandedly torpedo a fantasy team.

Eddie Lacy’s owners in 2015 had a lot of trouble recovering from his terrible season. The same was true of Montee Ball believers in 2014, and Trent Richardson buyers the year before that. The fantasy football landscape changes from week to week, and the best owners will have the agility to change with it. But overcoming an early bust is much easier said than done.

With that, we present to you the SI.com busts for the 2016 season. In parentheses next to each player’s name, you will find his ADP, as well as either the word “value” or “true,” denoting what type of bust he is. A value bust is simply a player who is being taken too early. He won’t completely leave his owners hanging, but will fail to live up to his draft-day value. Think of value busts more as overvalued rather than outright busts. True busts, however, are players who will so woefully underperform their ADP that they will make their owners regret the moment they drafted them.

• Breakout players to pick in your fantasy drafts | Sleepers to keep an eye on

David Johnson, RB, Cardinals (ADP: 6.0, value)

In a typical 12-team draft, Johnson is one of the first six players off the board. Chances are he’ll be scooped up within the first 10 picks of all standard drafts this season. The logic is easy to follow, but I believe it’s based on one significant flaw. Are we entirely sure he’s going to net true workhorse touches?

If Bruce Arians came right out and said, “We’re going to treat Johnson like the Vikings do Adrian Peterson,” I’d have no issue with him as a top-five or –six pick. Arians, of course, has no incentive to do that, and he doesn’t need to for Johnson to become a 300-touch back this year. Still, fantasy owners are assuming that will be the case, and that seems an article of blind faith.

Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are still on the roster in Arizona, and both will have a role in the offense. It’s the elder Johnson who could really upset the fantasy community this season. He played 11 games last year, running for 814 yards and three touchdowns on 196 carries. No one in their right mind would suggest he’s a better player than the second-year man out of Northern Iowa, but he’s certainly good enough to retain a presence that caps David Johnson’s ceiling lower than fantasy owners seem to expect.

The younger Johnson is easily the best receiver in Arizona’s backfield, and the Cardinals have said they plan to line him up out wide this season. That should help him beef up his receiving numbers, potentially counteracting some of the carries he cedes to Chris Johnson. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, however, that Johnson had double-digit carries just six times last year, including the playoffs, and ran for 60 or fewer yards in three of those games. At the same time, the Cardinals have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, and they need David Johnson just as fresh in December and January as he will be in September and October. One of the best ways to do that is to keep Chris Johnson and Ellington involved in the offense all season.

On a per-touch basis, I’m sure Johnson is going to be one of the best backs in the fantasy game. He should thrive in an Arizona offense that will be among the league’s best. If you’re using a top-six pick on him, though, you’re assuming he’s going to be a Peterson-style workhorse. I’m not ready to risk a first-round pick on that assumption.

Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons (ADP: 17.9, value)

There’s no need to rehash the story of Freeman taking over the Atlanta starting job last year after Tevin Coleman’s injury, and then turning into the No. 1 fantasy back in the league. Instead, let’s focus on a few realities facing Freeman this year.

Coleman is healthy and will have a larger role in the offense than he did last season. Freeman may be in the starter’s chair all year, but he’s not going to get nearly four times more touches than Coleman, like he did last season. Freeman missed one game last year, Atlanta’s Week 12 loss to Minnesota. Coleman ran for 110 yards on 18 carries in that game. Right off the bat, you can lop off 50 touches from last year’s 337 total.

As good as Freeman was last year, he ran for just 4.02 yards per carry, and didn’t top 88 rushing yards in his final eight games. He ran for fewer than 3.5 yards per carry in each of Atlanta’s last five contests. Freeman is unquestionably a weapon as a receiver, but can we be sure he’s the best runner on his own team? Is this someone on whom you want to burn a mid-second round pick?

Fantasy RB primer: Everything to know before the season | Preseason Power Rankings

Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks (ADP: 27.7, true)

How many times are fantasy owners going to be burned by a running back with half a season’s worth of a track record before they decide this class of player is risky?

Like Johnson, Rawls had six games with double-digit carries. To be fair, he was mostly excellent in those games, totaling 712 yards and five total touchdowns. Rawls ran for 5.65 yards per carry last season and, in his six double-digit carry games, topped 5.0 yards per carry four times.

The issues with Rawls, however, are numerous. First of all, we’re talking about an undrafted free agent with six meaningful games under his belt. He is still far from trustworthy, and league history is littered with backs who succeed in a small window and never again find that magic. He’s coming off a broken ankle suffered in the middle of December, and while he came off the PUP list in the second week of training camp, an injury that serious still makes him a risk.

Rawls is a non-entity in the passing game, meaning he’ll likely never be a true three-down back. The Seahawks selected C.J. Prosise out of Notre Dame, in the third round of this year’s draft. Prosise, a great receiver, will have a guaranteed role in the offense, and enough of a footing to potentially steal some carries from Rawls. The Seahawks weren’t done, either, adding Arkansas’s Alex Collins, a near Rawls clone, two rounds later.

Quite simply, there are too many red flags around Rawls, especially when you consider Brandin Cooks, T.Y. Hilton, Demaryius Thomas, and C.J. Anderson can typically be had for the same, or a lesser, price.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers (ADP: 30.4, value)

Benjamin is the sort of player I’d love, if I could just get him at a discount. Chances are, however, that someone in all of my leagues will like him more than I do.

The case for Benjamin as a safe WR2 and mid-third round pick seems logical. He had 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, and was widely viewed as a high-end WR2 last year before tearing his ACL in training camp. Cam Newton is coming off a unanimous MVP season in which he legitimized his pure quarterbacking bona fides for a lot of previous doubters. Benjamin should thrive once back in that offense. Or so the thinking goes.

There are just a few problems with that. Returning from a torn ACL isn’t as simple as cracking your knuckles and getting back on the field. Benjamin undoubtedly put in the work, but there remain a lot of unknowns for any player returning off such a devastating injury. If he’s a step slower, lost even a hint of explosiveness, or just needs a few games to shake off the rust, that’s going to hurt his bottom line.

After lost seasons, Kelvin Benjamin and Kevin White are ready for another chance

As good as Newton was throwing the ball last season, this is still a team that butters its bread with the run game, especially in the red zone. Only the Bills ran more often—as a percentage of total plays—than the Panthers last season. Carolina led the league with 109 rushing plays inside the red zone. Cincinnati was second with 86, meaning there was a larger gap between the Panthers and Bengals than between the Bengals and eighth-most Cardinals. The Panthers ran the ball on 60.2% of their red-zone plays, second to only the Vikings (63.8%).

Benjamin will change the dynamic of the Carolina offense, but not to the degree that so many in the fantasy community seem to expect.

Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots (ADP: 45.1, true)

The Patriots in the era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the NFL’s alchemists. From David Patten to Kevin Faulk, we’ve regularly seen them making something out of seemingly nothing. Lewis was the latest example, totaling 622 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns last year before tearing his ACL in the team’s seventh game. The thing about alchemy, though, is it can’t actually turn base metals into gold, and the latter is what fantasy owners are treating Lewis as this summer. That’s a mistake.

Lewis isn’t going to make much of an impact as a runner. He had 49 carries in his six-plus games last year, and topped 10 totes just once. He’ll give his fantasy owners some token production on the ground, and might sneak into the end zone a few times for rushing touchdowns, but it’s receiving numbers that move the needle. That’s a bad foundation for any running back coming off the board around pick No. 50.

What’s more, the Patriots have another back on the roster who isn’t coming off a torn ACL and is Lewis’s equal as a receiver. James White caught 40 of his 54 targets for 410 yards and two touchdowns last year. The two were largely indistinguishable, essentially matching one another in yards per catch and catch rate while dividing the workload nearly down the middle. There remains talk about the Patriots keeping Lewis on the PUP list to start the season, a luxury they’re afforded thanks to White. Even if Lewis is active for Week 1, it stands to reason that White will be involved in the offense, and their production is a zero-sum game.

We know the Patriots like Lewis, evidenced by them giving him an in-season contract extension last October. That, of course, was before he tore his ACL and White emerged. If anything, the extension could lead them to be more cautious with Lewis. I can’t stay far enough away from him at his ADP.

Matt Jones, RB, Redskins (ADP: 49.4, value)

A bet on Jones is a bet on nothing more than volume and the Washington offense. There is admittedly value in betting on volume for backs and the strength of an offense. Still, if you’re going to spend a top-50 pick on a running back, you probably want him to be able to stand on his own merit. Jones struggles to do so.

Jones played in 13 games last season, racking up double-digit carries eight times. He topped 65 yards in one of those games. Meanwhile, Jones failed to reach the 4.0-yard-per-carry threshold—which is so low, the word threshold feels like a misnomer—six times. In other words, in 75% of his 10-plus-carry games, he failed to run as effectively as Charcandrick West did over the full season.

All told, Jones had 490 yards on 144 carries, and 123 of those yards came in one game. He had one monster stat line as a receiver, thanks to a 78-yard touchdown, but was otherwise a non-factor in the passing game. Washington features a dedicated third-down back in Chris Thompson, as well as an intriguing rookie in Keith Marshall. Jones’s fantasy value is built on volume and little else. That’s a weak foundation for someone whose ADP forces you to count on him as a regular starter.

Allen Hurns, WR, Jaguars (ADP: 62.3, value)

Hurns is an above-average receiver, one of the best real-life No. 2s in the game. His run from being an undrafted free agent in 2014 to signing a four-year, $40-million extension last off-season was not only impressive, but further proof of the flaws in the scouting process.( Hurns is also an excellent podcast guest.) But he enters 2016 as an overvalued fantasy commodity.

We’ve already hit on the Jaguars’ offense at length this season, using Allen Robinson and Blake Bortles as the prism through which we view the unit. The widespread fantasy success of Jacksonville’s passing game last season was built largely on volume. Bortles attempted 606 passes. Hurns caught 64 of those, 10 of which went for touchdowns. Four of those came with the Jaguars either trailing by at least 18 points, while a fifth proved to be the game-winner in a 34­‑31 triumph over the Bills.

It’s exceedingly likely that the Jaguars are in those trailing positions far less frequently this year. One of the league’s worst defenses added Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. An improvement just to league average would take a huge bite out of the passing game’s volume. Furthermore, the Jaguars led the league in red-zone pass attempts with 88, a symptom both of their tendency to be trailing late in games and of an anemic running game. They addressed the latter by signing Chris Ivory, who led the NFL in rushes inside the 5-yard line last year, five of which he turned into touchdowns.

From an efficiency standpoint, there’s no reason to believe Hurns will take a step back this season. Unfortunately, his stats, especially his touchdowns, could easily take a hit with the expected dip in volume.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles (ADP: 71.8, true)

Through 13 games last season, Matthews had 64 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns. That comes out to 7.08 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues, which is typically good for about WR37 or WR38. The only thing that makes it appear he avoided being a bust was a three-game binge to end the season, during which he hauled in 21 passes for 317 yards and four more scores.

That good streak appears to have clouded the fantasy community’s judgment. Matthews is being drafted by the end of the sixth round, and as a top-30 receiver. Can anyone tell me what has changed for the better in Philadelphia? Sam Bradford is still the starting quarterback. The run game could be a mess. The only noticeable difference is that the coach who loved up-tempo offense and guaranteed that, if nothing else, the Eagles would run a lot of plays, is gone. In his place is someone who oversaw one of the league’s most conservative offenses for the last three years, former Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson.

Even including his strong finish, Matthews had more weeks outside the top-50 receivers last year (seven), than he did inside the top 20 (six). This should be an easy bust for fantasy owners to avoid.

That good streak appears to have clouded the fantasy community’s judgment. Matthews is being drafted by the end of the sixth round, and as a top-30 receiver. Can anyone tell me what has changed for the better in Philadelphia? Sam Bradford is still the starting quarterback. The run game could be a mess. The only noticeable difference is that the coach who loved up-tempo offense and guaranteed that, if nothing else, the Eagles would run a lot of plays, is gone. In his place is someone who oversaw one of the league’s most conservative offenses for the last three years, former Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson.

Even including his strong finish, Matthews had more weeks outside the top-50 receivers last year (seven), than he did inside the top 20 (six). This should be an easy bust for fantasy owners to avoid.

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