Six of our yearly fantasy football preview columns are already in the books. Click here to read if you missed NFC breakouts, sleepers and busts; AFC breakouts and sleepers; or rookies to watch. Our final staple, AFC busts, is presented below. The underlying message: You might want to think twice before investing in the Bills.
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
For all the offensive changes in the NFL over the last few years, coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have always leaned on the running game in their previous stops before joining forces in Buffalo this season. Roman, who’s more crucial to consider for these purposes, joins the Bills after four years running the 49ers offense. During his time in San Francisco, the Niners never ranked lower than ninth in rushing attempts, and were in the top three in the league twice.
McCoy, who was traded from the Eagles to the Bills in the offseason, got off to a dreadfully slow start last season, but he wasn't nearly as bad as owners remember; he ultimately ran for 1,319 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the year as the 12th-ranked running back in standard-scoring leagues.
So what makes McCoy, who remains one of the most explosive players at the position, a prime bust candidate this year? Opportunity cost and the overall offensive environment in Buffalo. McCoy’s average draft position is 12.8, which makes him the 13th player selected in a typical 12-team draft. His ADP his higher than that of Odell Beckham Jr., Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. The main driver there has to be an allegiance to running backs, but we know that they aren’t nearly as important as they once were, and that they have a higher bust rate than every other position. You can argue for McCoy over the quarterbacks, but you’re ignoring all the recent history at your fingertips if you take him over Beckham, Johnson, Gronkowski or Nelson.
The second red flag is the Buffalo offense, which will be a repeated topic of conversation in this column. McCoy turned his 2014 season around after a terrible opening month, but he did so with one of the league’s most potent offenses at his back. McCoy was a top-12 running back in four of the seasons he spent in Philadelphia. In all but one of those seasons, Eagles quarterbacks ranked in the top 10 at their position. The one season they didn’t, 2014, was the worst of McCoy’s four top-12 campaigns. A lot changes in the NFL from year to year, but the Buffalo passing game isn’t suddenly morphing into a juggernaut with Matt Cassel at the helm. It’s not McCoy’s fault that he’s in a substandard situation with the Bills, or that fantasy owners continue to affix a first-round price tag to his name. Unfortunately, however, he can almost do nothing but disappoint at that draft-day price.
Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
Marshall doesn’t have the same WR1 price tag he carried during his three seasons with the Bears, but he’s widely ranked in the low 20s at the position, meaning most everyone expects him to be a WR2 in 2015. A bust in that range won’t torpedo your team, but it’s still something you want to avoid, and that makes Marshall a risky pick at his draft-day price.
The talented yet polarizing receiver seemed to wear out another welcome, despite being one of the Bears’ best playmakers. Marshall caught just 61 passes for 721 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, and missed the final three games of the season due to a huge hit that resulted in two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Even before the injury, he wasn’t performing like the dominant No. 1 receiver he had been for the Bears during his first two seasons in Chicago. He had just two 100-yard games, and three of his eight touchdowns came in one game, a Week 2 win over the 49ers that seemed a whole lot more impressive at the time than it actually was. Pro Football Focus gave him a receiving grade of an even 0.0, which ranked 46th in the league. By comparison, he scored a 15.3 in 2013 and a 13.9 the previous year.
Marshall is now 31 years old, and his skills could very well be diminishing. Last season, he caught five of his 20 targets on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. In 2013 he had 13 such receptions, while in 2012 he had 11. It’s awfully hard to blame the tumult in Chicago for Marshall’s regression when you consider that Alshon Jeffery had 11 catches on deep targets for 377 yards and three scores. The Bears offense wasn’t anywhere near what it was supposed to be, but it could still attack down the field with Jeffery. That wasn’t the case with Marshall.
Picking on the Jets offense is one of football’s most familiar tropes, but the group may actually be a bit better than you expect this season. Chris Ivory is one of the league’s most underappreciated running backs, Ryan Fitzpatrick is perfectly capable of being a league-average quarterback, and the Marshall-Eric Decker duo can be effective, especially given that both receivers are so big and physical. Still, it’s going to be hard for this offense to produce two WR2s this year. If I can only bet on one, I’m betting on the younger Decker.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Watkins was the first receiver off the board in the 2014 NFL draft, but his classmates quickly surpassed him once they got on the field. Watkins finished fifth in fantasy points among rookie receivers last year, trailing Beckham, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews. He was 25th at the position overall, notching a total of 133 points in standard-scoring leagues, which translates to 8.3 points per game.
The one factor most out of Watkins’s control held him back last year, and is likely to do the same in 2015. Put simply, it’s hard to get excited about any receiver when his quarterback is Matt Cassel. We do routinely see receivers transcend their quarterback play to post monster seasons. Just last year, Evans had 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns while catching passes from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, while DeAndre Hopkins managed to get north of 1,200 yards with Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett all doing their best impressions of NFL quarterbacks.
Watkins certainly has the talent to make Cassel—or Tyrod Taylor, for that matter—look better than he actually is. What fantasy owners have to think about, however, is whether or not they want to make that bet at Watkins’ draft-day price. His 56.6 average draft position is has him off the board earlier than Marshall, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Allen Robinson in a typical draft. On its face, that’s absolutely a fair price to pay for Watkins, who could become a star at the receiver position. I just don’t have enough belief in the Buffalo offense to make that move myself. We frequently talk about how much environment matters for fantasy value; if Watkins could trade places with Jordy Nelson or T.Y. Hilton, he’d likely be a top-10 receiver, but as long as he’s in Buffalo with Matt Cassel, he’ll struggle to post WR2 numbers.
T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s quite hard being a rookie running back in the NFL—just ask Bishop Sankey. The first back selected in the 2014 draft carried lofty expectations into his first season, and then ran for 569 yards and two touchdowns on 152 carries. Or ask Carlos Hyde, who didn’t get to play much behind Frank Gore last year. The most successful rookie running back seasons we’ve seen over the last five years belonged to Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard in 2013, and Trent Richardson and Doug Martin in 2012. Richardson somehow lucked his way into 11 touchdowns, while Martin rode a workhorse role to heights he hasn’t come close to reaching again. The common denominator for Bell, Lacy and Bernard, however, is that they were all on teams that were, at the very least, decent. The Packers and Bengals won their respective divisions in 2013, while the Steelers went 8–8 and were right in the middle of the league in scoring and total yards.
The Jaguars aren’t likely to cross even that modest threshold set by the 2013 Steelers, and that’s just the first strike against Yeldon’s fantasy value in his rookie year. It’s safe to say that no matter what happens the rest of the preseason, he will be sharing the backfield with Denard Robinson. The Michigan product revitalized the Jacksonville running game once the team finally turned to him last year, giving the offense a threat where it previously didn’t exist. Robinson picked up 582 yards and four touchdowns on 135 carries in his first significant playing time as a running back. He may not be Barry Sanders, but he’s not going anywhere, either. Yeldon’s best-case scenario might be 200 carries on a league-average offense. He’s also not much of a home-run threat—he ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash at the combine—and dealt with ball-security issues at Alabama. Is that a back in which you want to invest one of your first five picks?
Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers
One of the hardest class of players for the fantasy community to gauge is the sophomore slumpers. Through two seasons, we’ve seen the good and the bad from these guys, and it can be a real challenge to figure out which one is the real one. That’s the situation confronting drafters when Allen’s name comes to the fore in 2015. Allen was the No. 17 overall receiver in his rookie year of 2013, catching 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. For reasons we will diagnose shortly, he regressed in every statistic, except receptions, last year. Allen had 77 catches in 2014, but he amassed just 783 yards and four scores.
The major issue with Allen is identical to what we highlighted with Brandin Cooks in our NFC busts column. The third-year receiver out of California just doesn’t make that many big plays down the field. In his first two seasons in the league, Allen had a grand total of four—yes, four—receptions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Julio Jones had 18 such catches last year alone. In fact, 59 receivers, from the likes of Jones and Dez Bryant to Rueben Randle and Riley Cooper, had more deep catches last year than Allen has had in his career.
If a receiver isn’t a significant threat down the field, he needs to be efficient in the red zone to make a meaningful fantasy impact. Allen also fell short in that regard last year. He had just four targets when the Chargers were inside the 10-yard line and one inside the five. Antonio Gates dominated those targets, so it’s certainly possible that Allen will get more looks with the veteran suspended for the first four games of the season, but it’s just as likely that Ladarius Green will seamlessly take over Gates’ role. Allen’s lack of big-play ability, coupled with potential inefficiency in the red zone, makes it hard to trust him at his 48.2 ADP.
FANTASY FOOTBALL ROOKIES TO WATCH
Fantasy Football Rookies to Watch
Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
Gordon is going to dominate the touches out of San Diego’s backfield. He drew comparisons to Jamaal Charles throughout his college career, especially after running roughshod over the Big Ten for more than 4,000 yards in the last two seasons combined. There remain questions about Gordon’s efficacy in the passing game, but no one doubts what he can do once he has the ball in his hands. He’ll be an easy top-15 running back this year, and can realistically break into the top 10 at the position.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jaguars
Don’t sleep on what Denard Robinson did when he was handed the reins in Jacksonville’s backfield last year. In his first four games as the starter, he ran for 489 yards and four touchdowns on 72 carries, scoring at least 11.8 fantasy points in each of those contests. Even if Yeldon were to start, the Jaguars wouldn’t cut Robinson completely out of the offense. This situation has timeshare written all over it, and it’s entirely possible that Robinson would be the leader in that split. Yeldon’s current 50.9 ADP, which makes him the 24th back off the board in a typical draft and has him ahead of the likes of Rashad Jennings, LeGarrette Blount, Golden Tate and DeSean Jackson, is simply far too high.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions
Abdullah could give the Lions a menacing trio of playmakers, joining Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. He wasn’t the first running back off the board in the draft, but you could argue he provides a better chance for profit than either Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley in fantasy leagues this season. If all breaks his way, Abdullah could be a top-20 running back as a rookie.
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
The Raiders' offense as a whole limits Cooper’s ceiling a bit, but he’ll take aim for the very top of what it allows. If he were on a better team or playing with a quarterback superior to Derek Carr, he could end up as a top-10 receiver this season. That probably won’t happen with the challenges Cooper is up against in Oakland, but don’t be surprised if he breaks into the top 20.
Gurley didn’t tear his ACL until mid-November, meaning he’ll be just 10 months removed from the injury when the Rams take on the Seahawks in their season opener. On top of that, Tre Mason played well once the Rams finally gave him a chance in his rookie season, running for 765 yards and four touchdowns on 179 carries. The Rams have no reason to rush Gurley back, or ride him too hard once he is on the field. He may be a star in the future, but don’t expect it to come together this year.
Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons
Coleman has an opportunity to win the starting job on a team with an offense that will be at worst above average, with a ceiling to be one of the 10 best units in the league. He’ll be playing his home games on the fast track at the Georgia Dome, and his main competition for the job is Devonta Freeman, who had all of 65 carries in his rookie season. Now, if only Coleman’s hamstring would cooperate. He should be drafted in every league, regardless of format. However, his slow start in camp coupled with the crowded backfield he enters add up to a restricted ceiling. Chances are he’s no more than a solid fantasy backup this year.
Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles
The Eagles fully expect Agholor to start alongside Jordan Matthews. Scouts questioned his strength during the combine, and many see him as a slot receiver rather than someone who can line up outside the numbers on every play. That’s something to keep an eye on during the Eagles’ preseason games. If Agholor shows more speed or strength than we’re expecting, he’d be worth bumping up your draft boards. If he doesn’t, he belongs outside the top 40 at the position. He does get a slight uptick in value thanks to his punt returning duties with the Eagles.
Breshad Perriman, WR, Ravens
Perriman is expected to start alongside Steve Smith, taking over for the departed Torrey Smith. He’s a true burner and becomes an immediate deep threat for Joe Flacco. Someone in every fantasy league should throw a late-round dart in his direction
David Cobb, RB, Titans
Cobb’s the fourth rookie running back from the Big Ten who should be drafted in all fantasy leagues. The Minnesota product is in a training camp battle for the starting gig with Bishop Sankey. Regardless of the outcome, both will have significant roles in the offense, but Cobb is more of a straight north-south runner who can be effective in short-yardage situations.
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Miami’s entire offense has breakout potential this season, and Parker, the first-round pick out of Louisville, could be a big part of that. He’d have more fantasy buzz if not for a foot injury, but now the 6'3", 218-pound monster can be the steal of your draft. If he’s healthy early in the season, he’ll create a large role for himself in Miami.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Winston has a trio of big weapons in his passing attack, highlighted by second-year star Mike Evans. If he can quickly develop a rapport with the Texas A&M product, as well as Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, we could eventually be discussing him as the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
After Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, who’s going to catch passes in the Carolina offense? Jonathan Stewart? Stephen Hill? Jerricho Cotchery? The rookie out of Michigan landed in an ideal spot, at least in terms of getting an immediate opportunity.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans
Mariota will start from Day One in Tennessee, and while there will be plenty of growing pains, he has enough upside to warrant attention in fantasy leagues of all stripes. He is especially intriguing in two-QB leagues.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Titans
There’s no doubting Green-Beckham’s natural talent. If he didn’t run into trouble in college, he likely would have been a first-round pick. The Titans don’t have anyone standing in his way at receiver, so if he proves himself—he’ll likely have to outplay Justin Hunter, since their skills are redundant—he could have a big role in the passing game
Duron Carter, WR, Colts
Cris Carter’s son spent the last two seasons dominating the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes. The Colts’ depth chart at receiver is potentially the most crowded in the league, but Carter could very well emerge as the team’s third receiver ahead of Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett.