The NFL just put a bow on its most active trade deadline…ever? There were five major trades leading up to the deadline. It began slowly with the Bills sending defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars for a sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft. It picked up steam with the Seahawks landed left tackle Duane Brown for its beleaguered line, sending cornerback Jeremy Lane and a couple of picks to Houston.
The trading action kicked into a higher gear on Monday night, with the Patriots finally waving goodbye to Jimmy Garoppolo. After holding onto him for as long as possible, the Patriots parted with their erstwhile backup, moving him to San Francisco for a 2018 second-round pick. The wheeling and dealing reached a crescendo on Tuesday, when the Eagles acquired Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round pick in next year’s draft. Hours later, the Bills swung a deal for Kelvin Benjamin in exchange for their third- and seventh-round picks in the 2018 draft.
On top of all that, in between news breaking on the Garoppolo and Ajayi trades, we learned that a U.S. district court judge denied Ezekiel Elliott’s request for a preliminary injunction, clearing the way for his six-game suspension to begin.
All that made for one of the most exciting non-game related 48-hour windows in recent memory in the fantasy football world. Here’s a look at how the fantasy sands have shifted in light of this week’s news.
Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension
We’re back where we thought we were three weeks ago with Elliott and the Cowboys backfield. This time, however, it appears the suspension will finally stand. Our Michael McCann has a look at what legal options still remain for Elliott, but it appears the Cowboys, and his fantasy owners, will be without him until Week 15.
As it stands, there are two primary questions to answer in the fantasy world. First, what is the expected fantasy value of Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris? Second, what do Elliott owners do with the suspended running back?
All we can say with certainty about Dallas’s backfield for the time being is that McFadden and Morris will have roles. The latter has served as Elliott’s backup this season, though that doesn’t mean as much in Dallas as it does elsewhere. Elliott has 164 carries, 26 targets and 19 receptions this season. All other Cowboys running backs have 23 carries and seven targets. Elliott’s 83.8% snap rate is second to Le’Veon Bell among running backs. Being Elliott’s backup has almost zero predictive value in the Cowboys backfield.
In fact, there are rumblings that McFadden has been inactive while Morris has been a lightly used backup because the team planned on the former being its primary back if Elliott’s suspension ended up becoming a reality. The only way to guarantee McFadden would be healthy for a post-Elliott world is if he were on the sidelines until the suspension took effect. That mission, if it existed, has been accomplished.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones appeared on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday, and said that Morris would get more carries with Elliott suspended, but that McFadden and Rod Smith, a third-year player out of Ohio State, would both have roles in the offense. Jones’s words clearly carry weight, and this is the only concrete statement concerning playing time that we have out our disposal, but it’s also different than Jason Garrett saying the same thing.
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The main takeaway is that no back will dominate the workload in Dallas the way Elliott does. The bet here is that it will be a relatively even split between Morris and McFadden, until and unless one of them runs away with the job. Smith will also mix in, mostly on passing downs.
Elliott owners have two choices. They can either stash him on the bench, or try to trade him. He’s too good and still has too much value to drop. He will return in Week 15, the playoff semifinals in most fantasy leagues. If you’re in a strong position in your league, say 6-2 or better, your best bet is likely just to bury him on your bench until he returns. If you’re 5-3 or worse, you should reach out to the teams in your league that are likely to make the playoffs, and get their best offers for Elliott. Make it known to all of them that it’s not a matter of if you’ll trade Elliott, but what package will be good enough to secure his services. That’s the best way to guarantee you see every possible offer before making a move.
Jay Ajayi to the Eagles
The Ajayi trade came out of nowhere Tuesday morning. It was no secret that there were some hard feelings between Ajayi and the Miami coaching staff, specifically head coach Adam Gase, but there weren’t any indications that the team would trade him. Furthermore, it isn’t often that a 4-3 team, as fraudulent as it might be, trades a key piece of its skill-position core.
There are three questions to answer with respect to the Ajayi trade? First, what is his value now that he’s a member of the Eagles? Second, what does the trade mean for LeGarrette Blount, and, to a lesser extent, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement? Third, what does the fantasy community do about Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams?
Ajayi and his fantasy owners should be dancing in the street right now. Yes, he’ll have to go through a second bye week, but that’s a small price to pay for the massive upgrade in offensive environment. The Dolphins have run 14 plays inside the 10-yard line all season. Three running backs—Bell, Elliott and Carlos Hyde—have at least that many carries inside the 10. LeGarrette Blount has 12 such carries, and the Eagles have 17 as a team. Ajayi is going to have many more scoring chances with the Eagles than he did with the Dolphins.
The Dolphins rank last in the league in yards and points per game. The Eagles are sixth in yards and fourth in points. The Eagles are scoring 16 more points per game than the Dolphins. In other words, Ajayi is now playing for an offense that is scoring two touchdowns more per game than the one he left behind. This is a great trade for him and his fantasy owners, even with the second bye.
The trade can only be bad news for Blount’s value, though it likely isn’t a disaster. First and foremost, Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman went on local sports radio station WIP on Tuesday and said that Blount would remain the starter. He has played his role in the Philadelphia offense well, salting away many a lead in the second half, turning goal-line carries into touchdowns, and being effective in all short-yardage situations. He’s a free agent after the season, and it’s likely the Eagles made the move as much for the future as they did for this year.
Still, no team acquires a back like Ajayi, struggling though he is, to serve as a glorified backup. The two will share the backfield, though the bet here is that Ajayi gets more work. Blount, however, may hold onto the ever-important goal-line carries. As for Smallwood and Clement, whatever fleeting fantasy value they had is now gone.
Finally, let’s go back to Miami. Drake and Williams will certainly split the work in the backfield. Here’s what I wrote about the pair in this week’s Waiver Wire column.
Ajayi was a true workhorse for the Dolphins, handling more than 70% of the team's backfield touches. Whatever we can glean from Drake's and Williams's usage should be considered with that in mind. Williams did play more snaps and get more touches over the team's first seven games, but that owes largely to the fact that he was, and likely still is, the team's third-down back. Drake got six carries last week, which was the most for any Miami back not named Ajayi this season. We know this is going to be a timeshare, but Drake has more of the characteristics of a primary running back than Williams. Both players are worth a claim with Ajayi out of the picture, but make Drake your preference. You should not break the bank for either. Our 4for4 colleague Josh Moore hit it on the head when he called both backs "likely-to-disappoint must-adds." While they have obvious value at the top of Miami's depth chart, their lackluster skill sets, combined with the limitations of the Dolphins offense, will likely prevent either from moving the needle very much in fantasy leagues.
Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills
The trade deadline arrived with a bang in the form of the Bills finally finding their man at receiver. I’m fully aware that Benjamin has yet to live up to the hype after his 1,008-yard, nine-touchdown rookie season. I know he has looked slow at times, and that there have been negative reports about his weight. To say he’s anything other than a massive upgrade for the Buffalo receiving core is foolish at best, and willfully ignorant at worst.
The move’s a lateral one for Benjamin. There’s no more than a marginal difference between playing in Carolina with Cam Newton and Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor. His new quarterback, however is the big winner. Taylor has been keeping it together with LeSean McCoy, smoke and mirrors. He ranks 20th among quarterbacks in total points in standard-scoring leagues, and 19th in points per game. Now he gets a big-bodied receiver who could be a real weapon in the red zone. No offense to Andre Holmes, Jordan Matthews, Deonte Thompson and Zay Jones, but they just don’t measure up to Benjamin. Even if Benjamin is exactly what he has shown in Carolina and nothing more, this represents a huge move of the needle in the right direction for Taylor.
There’s a lot more intrigue in Carolina. Let’s start with Newton, because the impact on him is easiest to dissect. This is bad news for the Panthers quarterback. For better or worse, Benjamin was his No. 1 receiver. He had 32 catches on 51 targets for 475 yards and two touchdowns on the season. He’s now in Buffalo. Greg Olsen is out until at least Thanksgiving. Newton’s top pass-catchers are now Devin Funchess, Christian McCaffrey, Ed Dickson, Curtis Samuel and Russell Shepard. Funchess has stepped his game up a level in his third season, and McCaffrey can be a real weapon as a receiver, but there’s no positive spin for Newton here. He’s no more than a fringe QB1 the rest of the season.
Funchess, like Taylor, is a big winner. He’s now the unquestioned top receiver on the Panthers roster. He was already trending toward co-equal status with Benjamin, catching 33 of 58 targets for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season, but now there’s no one in town who can come close to matching what he brings to the table.
Benjamin missed most of one game earlier this season when he suffered what turned out to be a minor knee injury. Funchess went on to rack up 10 targets in that game, hauling in four for 58 yards. That is what cemented his role in the Carolina offense. In the five games since then, he has 23 catches for 211 yards and three touchdowns. In the two games before Benjamin’s injury, Funchess had a total of eight targets. He has had fewer than eight targets in just one game over the last six weeks.
McCaffrey, too, could be in line for an uptick in fantasy value. He’s already getting seemingly all he can handle, with 66 targets in eight games, but so much of that has come with him lined up in the backfield. McCaffrey hasn’t done a whole lot with his heavy workload, totaling 378 receiving yards, 117 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but it would be interesting to see what he could do if he lined up as a receiver more often. He may get that chance with Benjamin now in Buffalo.
Finally, we move onto the three players flickering on the fantasy radar. Samuel and Shepard could both lay claim to the No. 2 receiver job. Shepard has more targets this season (18 to 14), but Samuel was a second-round pick in the 2017 draft. Remember, too, that Samuel played as much running back as he did receiver during his time at Ohio State. Might the Panthers pull a Packers/Ty Montgomery on him, and move him to running back, with McCaffrey bumping outside more often? It would be interesting to watch, and could be good for both players fantasy value. For now, Samuel is worth a speculative add in deeper leagues, while Shepard is still irrelevant in fantasy leagues. Dickson, meanwhile, remains a low-level stream candidate at tight end, and nothing more.