Fantasy Football Busts: Will Marshawn Lynch, Brandin Cooks Thrive with New Teams?

1:17 | Fantasy
Fantasy Football 2017: Familiar Faces, New Places
Thursday August 10th, 2017

The Staples Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will cover the three labels fantasy owners have come to know and love over the years: breakouts, sleepers and busts. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller and 4for4’s Chris Raybon and TJ Hernandez present their 2017 busts.

Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars (ADP: Round 2)

Fournette was unquestionably the best back in this draft, and one of the best prospects at the position coming out of college in recent memory. In 32 games across his three-year career at LSU, he ran for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns. That’s good for close to 120 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game, while routinely playing against the best defenses in the country in the loaded SEC.

The stats, as loudly as they speak, don’t tell the whole story. Anyone who watched Fournette during his college days saw a back with raw power, breakaway speed and a great feel for the game. If he operated in a vacuum, he wouldn’t be anywhere near a busts column.

Fournette landed in one of the worst possible spots when the Jaguars used the fourth-overall pick in this year’s draft to make him their running back of the future. This is the polar opposite of the same spot one year earlier, when the Cowboys grabbed Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State. Elliott had the benefit of joining a team built to win right away, largely on the strength of its top-flight offensive line. Dak Prescott’s emergence was a happy coincidence, but he, too, was aided by that same line, and Elliott’s numbers likely wouldn’t have been significantly different had Tony Romo been healthy last year. He was dropped right into a spot where he could succeed, and he made the most of it.

That couldn’t be further from the truth for Fournette. The Jaguars upgraded the left side of their line by trading for Branden Albert and signing Earl Watford, but it still has the look of a league-average unit. Fournette isn’t going to have nearly as easy a team finding large chunks of yardage as Elliott did last year. He’s also unlikely to have anywhere near as much help from his quarterback. Blake Bortles was one of the worst signal callers in the league a year ago, and his struggles permeated the entire offense. That’s what happens when you’re the quarterback. If Bortles doesn’t take a major step forward this season, Fournette is going to be starting at loaded fronts all year.

Fournette could be on 24 or so different teams, and I’d feel much differently about his second-round draft-day price, which forces his owners to assume the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, he’s on the Jaguars. With that supporting cast, it’s hard to see the best-case scenario coming to fruition. — Michael Beller

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Marshawn Lynch, RB, Raiders (ADP: Round 3)

Lynch has played just seven games over the last two seasons. The last time we saw him play, he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in an injury-riddled 2015 campaign. Now he’s on the wrong side of 30, and no one knows what kind of shape he is in. He also finds himself on a team that wants to use a committee at his position. Last year, one Oakland running back accounted for at least two-thirds of the team’s backfield touches in a game just three times, fourth-fewest in NFL.

Some fantasy owners assume this will change in 2017 because Lynch is better than Latavius Murray. The more likely explanation, however, is that Oakland has two very good backs— DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard—that they want to keep involved in the offense. A recent Raiders backfield analysis done by 4for4’s Joe Holka arrived at a similar conclusion.

As a team, Oakland might not offer as much scoring upside as people think. In 2016, the Raiders reached the red zone on 28.5% of their drives, which ranked just 18th in the league, but they scored the seventh-most touchdowns. In other words, Lady Luck was on Oakland’s side when it came to finding the end zone last year. Unless they see a significant increase in drive efficiency, look for the Raiders’ touchdown totals to drop in 2017.

With no guarantee of a workhorse role, and a likely decline in Raiders touchdowns, it’s hard to see Lynch paying off his RB13 price tag. — TJ Hernandez

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Brandin Cooks, WR, Patriots (ADP: Round 3)

Brandin Cooks is currently being taken as the 12th wide receiver off the board in fantasy drafts, but in New England, he could struggle to match the success he enjoyed in his three years as Drew Brees’s top target.

The most obvious concern for Cooks in his new home is his competition for targets. Julian Edelman ranked second in the league in percentage of team targets last season, and Rob Gronkowski has averaged more than seven targets per game for his career. To top it off, the Patriots always reserve a number of targets for their running backs. Add in a promising 2016 season from wide receivers Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, and it’s difficult to envision a scenario where Cooks is Tom Brady’s clear No. 1 target.

While New England’s passing attack may be just as efficient as the one led by Brees, it’s certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison. In 2016, the Saints posted the fifth-highest passing rate in the league, while the Patriots had the fifth-highest rushing rate. Since Cooks came into the league, New Orleans has thrown the ball 1,997 times, which comfortably exceeds New England’s 1,790 attempts.

Additionally, Cooks is extremely reliant on the long ball for his fantasy success, and Drew Brees was the perfect quarterback to highlight that attribute. In his career, Brees has the highest completion percentage among active quarterbacks on passes of 15 yards or more, while Brady ranks eighth in that category—good, but not nearly as effective as Brees.

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Finally, concerns exist about Cooks playing outside of a dome. He has averaged 10.4 standard points per game indoors, compared to just 7.8 standard points per game outdoors, which was the difference between the average of the WR12 and WR37 last season. In PPR leagues, Cooks has averaged 15.6 points per game indoors and 12.8 points per game outdoors, which was the difference between WR10 numbers and WR28 numbers in 2016. New England will only play in a dome three times in 2017.

Given his ADP, Cooks is a hard pass for me in every format. — TH

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers (ADP: Round 3)

This is a classic case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Since Cam Newton came into the league, no team has targeted its running backs less than the Panthers. Throwing to running backs is a facet which now must be added to Carolina’s game plan if McCaffrey is going to thrive. While it’s true that Newton has never had a back like McCaffrey to throw to, his problem is that many of the plays which would normally evolve into running back catches via checkdown are the same plays on which he has usually opted to tuck the ball and run in the past. Just days into training camp, Newton said that he has no plans to stop running the ball.

Even if McCaffrey can get Newton to throw to him, he still has to deal with the issue of his quarterback’s presence near the goal line, which inherently caps the upside of every running back on the Panthers. Since 2011, only six players have more rushes inside the 10-yard line than Newton, who has 97 such attempts. No other quarterback has more than 35 in that span.

Not only do McCaffrey owners have to worry about Newton, but Jonathan Stewart still stands to retain a major role in the offense. 4for4’s John Paulsen has Stewart projected for 213 carries—16th highest in the league.

With all these factors at play, McCaffrey is a good bet to finish well below his RB14 ADP. — TH

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Alshon Jeffery, WR, Eagles (ADP: Round 3)

Signed to a one-year, $9.5 million prove-it deal, Jeffery has drafters feeling way too comfortable. He has massive downside.

The tallest hurdle Jeffery must clear to meet expectations this season is a nightmarish strength of schedule. Philadelphia will face the third-toughest schedule in the league for wide receivers, per 4for4’s Strength of Schedule Rankings. And even that understates how difficult Jeffery will have it against No. 1 cornerbacks. Jeffery will spend half the season lined up against Josh Norman (Week 1), Janoris Jenkins (Week 3), Jason Verrett (Week 4), Patrick Peterson (Week 5), Norman again (Week 7), Aqib Talib (Week 9), Richard Sherman (Week 12), and Jenkins again (Week 15). The Eagles also meet the Chiefs in Arrowhead, where Jeffery is likely to see at least some of another good, albeit stationary, cornerback, Marcus Peters.

Jeffery is not as well-equipped as other No. 1 wideouts to survive a murderer’s row of shutdown cornerbacks. He rarely moves around, playing just 9.1% of his snaps in the slot in 2016 (ranked 83rd among wide receivers, per PlayerProfiler). And with capable secondary receivers in Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, and Darren Sproles, Carson Wentz may elect against forcing the ball to Jeffery. With eight games against shutdown-level corners, a ninth in the always-difficult Arrowhead, and an irrelevant Week 17 home tilt with Dallas, Jeffery may end up with only a handful of games in which he can salvage his fantasy season, making him an extremely fragile fantasy investment.

Jeffery may have a lot more to prove by the time 2017 is over. — Chris Raybon

Carlos Hyde, WR, 49ers (ADP: Round 4)

Picks going this high are supposed to be relatively safe, and Hyde is anything but. In a league of 10 or 12 drafters, I suppose all it takes is one to be oblivious to offseason developments and take Hyde at essentially the same ADP as last year like nothing has happened.

A lot has happened.

In April, new general manager John Lynch openly questioned whether Hyde fits in new head coach Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, setting off a constant bombardment of news on Hyde—almost all negative—throughout the spring and summer. Apparently, Shanahan just needed to draft Joe Williams even though the team had crossed him off its board. Why? Scheme fit, of course. From there, things got almost comically disparaging, with reporters seemingly engaging in a months-long game of hot-take one-upsmanship: Hyde will have to “earn the starting job,” is the team’s “slowest and most indecisive” back, and, the ultimate death knell, a potential “surprise cut.”

It could all be nothing—Hyde was taking first-team reps at camp, after all. But concerns are mounting. The 49ers have the league’s most difficult schedule for running backs, according to 4for4’s Strength of Schedule Rankings. And Hyde’s career averages of 4.4 yards per target and 5.7 yards per catch don’t help—especially in a potential dogfight for reps on a team likely to need to pass often. Being a receiving threat would go a long way toward solidifying some sort of usable floor. As it stands, Hyde has by far the lowest floor of any top 40–50 pick. — CR

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Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots (ADP: Round 5)

The last thing most NFL fans remember about Julian Edelman is his catch for the ages in Super Bowl LI, so if you’re someone who tunes out of all things football-related up until draft time, it’s easy to overlook subtle hints that Edelman may not be quite as valuable in fantasy as in years past.

Edelman has been a fantasy asset because he gets copious amounts of volume—he has averaged 9.7 targets per game since the start of 2013. But last season, he needed the league’s third-most targets to score just the 14th-most PPR points and 22nd-most standard points among wide receivers. And despite being third in the league in targets and playing with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Edelman scored only three touchdowns, or one every 53 targets.

Bill Belichick tends to be very deliberate, so it’s not a coincidence that New England traded for Brandin Cooks in the offseason after Edelman posted lackluster efficiency numbers in his age-30 season. With Cooks, a healthy (for now) Rob Gronkowski and emerging complementary pieces in James White, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots shouldn’t need to overextend Edelman as much as they have in previous seasons. 4for4 has Edelman projected for 75 catches this year, 23 fewer than in 2016.

Because Edelman is a low-yard-per-target, low-touchdown receiver, losing targets would be more detrimental to him than perhaps any other fantasy-relevant wideout. And remember, there’s a long way down from the third-most targets in the league. You can feel comfortable bypassing Edelman in drafts, because even if he surpasses expectation, he’s unlikely to do it by much—his career-high in touchdowns is seven.

There are higher-upside options on the board in Edelman’s ADP range. — CR

Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs (ADP: Round 5)

Thanks to Pro Football Reference, I can say with certainty that there have been two instances in NFL history of a receiver scoring at least 130 fantasy points in standard leagues with fewer than 600 receiving yards. Tavon Austin achieved the feat in 2015, with 473 receiving yards, 434 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns. If you’ve played fantasy football for most of this decade, you know that to be an extreme outlier for Austin. The other was Hill last season.

Hill came out of nowhere last year to be a do-it-all player for the Chiefs. He caught 61 passes for 593 yards, picked up 267 yards on the ground on 24 carries, and scored 12 touchdowns, three of which came on returns. It was a great rookie season for Hill, and anyone who scooped him up before his run looked like a genius. They also caught lightning in a bottle.

Players like Hill and Austin are unique talents that can change games when they have the ball in their hands. They’re also completely unreliable, and wholly depending on big plays for the fantasy production. That’s not the brand of player you can trust. Hill made that clear last season. Even after he emerged in the middle of the year, he fewer than 65 yards from scrimmage in four of his last nine games. In Weeks 15 and 16, he caught a total of zero passes, but salvaged his days with a 68-yard touchdown run one week, and a 70-yarder the next. It’s true that you can’t take those away from Hill. It’s just as true that you can’t count on plays like that to lead to fantasy relevance.

Nothing Hill showed last season suggests he can be a consistent threat as an actual receiver. As long as that’s where he’s lining up on the vast majority of the snaps he plays, he’s going to have to make his way through the air if he’s going to be a regular fantasy contributor. The fact that he costs a mid-fifth-round pick in typical drafts is a joke. This is one of the easiest passes to make this draft season. — MB

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Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots (ADP: Round 6)

The logic behind Gillislee’s rise up draft boards—his ADP has climbed nearly a full round since the 4th of July—is easy enough to follow. He was great while spelling LeSean McCoy the last two years in Buffalo, totaling 844 yards on 148 carries, good for 5.7 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns. Now at the head of the crowded Patriots backfield, he has fantasy owners seeing gold in the fourth and fifth rounds of typical 12-team leagues.

The operative phrase in the previous sentence should send you into cold sweats. “Crowded Patriots backfield” is never something a fantasy owner wants to hear. Sure, we think Gillislee will be the leader of that pack, but can we be sure? And if he is, how long will he hold that status? It could be for 16 games, or it could be touch and go from week to week. We know he’s the most talented back in New England, but that won’t necessarily net him the volume his ADP assumes.

James White or Dion Lewis will serve as the primary pass-catching back, with the former the favorite. The Super Bowl hero turned in an excellent 2016 season, catching 60 passes for 551 yards and five touchdowns. The Patriots have made an art form out of using their backs as receivers, and Gillislee doesn’t have the capital to make them change that tendency. White will have a large role that directly takes away from Gillislee’s share of the offense.

Gillislee is expected to face competition from Rex Burkhead in goal-line duty, as well. Even if he’s able to secure most of the work, losing just a small amount of it would significantly detract from his fantasy value.

Finally, Tom Brady has averaged at least 36 pass attempts per game in all of the last six seasons. In four of those years, he threw the ball at least 611 times. If White owns passing-down work, as is expected, Gillislee could lose out when the Patriots go into their no-huddle offense, as well.

In general, I like Gillislee, and I’d bet on him leading the Patriots backfield in fantasy scoring this year. At a top-50 ADP, though, the risk is far too great. — MB

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