2018 Fantasy Football Divisional Preview: AFC East
Dom Murtha breaks down the AFC East division from a fantasy football perspective.
With free agency frenzy and the NFL Draft now firmly behind us, it is time to start looking towards the 2018 fantasy football season. Over the next few weeks, I will take you around the league, division by division, team by team, talking valuable fantasy commodities and potential busts. For each team in each division, I will flesh out... 1) Fantasy MVP 2) Fantasy Rookie of the Year 3) Most Improved Fantasy Player 4) Biggest Fantasy Disappointment. Through this process, you should gain a more well-rounded perspective of the league at large; who to target and who to avoid in your upcoming drafts. Sit back and relax, training camp is almost here...
While they didn’t win the Super Bowl, or even advance in the playoffs, 2017 has to be regarded as a resounding success for the Bills. In the 22 seasons prior, Buffalo remained the only NFL – nay, major American sports franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs. With some help from the Bengals and the Ravens, the Bills managed to finish 9-7 in the regular season, allowing them to sneak into the postseason for the first time since 1995. This ended the longest drought in American professional sports. Finally making the playoffs removed a large monkey off the back of the city, however that doesn’t mean that the roster was 100-percent safe. This offseason, major changes were made at the quarterback position, seeing incumbent TyRod Taylor traded and Wyoming rookie Josh Allen drafted. Veteran backup A.J. McCarron was also acquired, leaving many to believe that he, the rookie Allen, and Nathan Peterman will battle it out for the starting job in camp. Improvements were also made along the offensive line, while the defense saw its share of an overhaul as well. Looking to improve on a successful season, the Bills were anything but complacent this offseason.
2018 Fantasy MVP: LeSean McCoy
Since being acquired in 2015, one constant in this column has been LeSean McCoy ’s name penciled next to this award. Over the last three years, Shady has been by far the Bills most important fantasy asset, and it hasn’t even been close. While he’s now a bit long in the tooth, McCoy should remain the Bills most valuable fantasy player in 2018, regardless of some new additions to the offensive roster.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Tremaine Edmunds
Surprised you’re not seeing Josh Allen here? You should be, especially considering the Bills invested a first rounder in the kid… Having said that though, it’s no secret that Allen is as raw as sushi, which to me means that he is unlikely to win the job out of camp. If he doesn’t win the job, that means that A.J. McCarron likely did, and considering my fondness for McCarron, I’m confident that he can keep the job for most of the season. With all of that being said, chances are that Allen doesn’t see the field much this season, which leaves the door open for a guy like Edmunds – who is expected to start, albeit on the defensive side of the football – to win this award. You may think that including an IDP guy on this list is a cop out, but I don’t really care because it’s my list and I make the rules. Ultimately for Edmunds, his starting status and sideline-to-sideline ability will make him an immediate impact player in IDP formats. He has the potential to be a tackling machine in 2018.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Zay Jones
While I mentioned A.J. McCarron and how I believe that he may lock down a starting job for the first time in his career, in terms of pure improvement I am going to go with Zay Jones . Basically, having McCarron here would be obvious because there is no question that he is going to see statistical improvement going from taking no snaps to taking all of the offensive snaps. With Jones on the other hand, while he played often and struggled last season, I expect his production to improve this season while maintaining a similar amount of reps. Coupled with the potential improvement at the quarterback position, Jones’ year of experience at the NFL level will have him more prepared for the 2018 season. Considering his collegiate history of being a high volume target (most receptions in NCAA history), chances are that he begins to work his way into being the focal point in this Buffalo offense going forward. With his talent level and track record, it shouldn’t be hard at all for Jones to even double up on his statistical line from last season – 27 catches, 316, and two TD’s.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Josh Allen
As I have already explained in detail, while some are expecting Josh Allen to make an impact as a rookie, I can’t fathom a way that he wins this job. With A.J. McCarron at the helm, I actually rather like the Bills chances for success, therefore Allen shouldn’t even have the chance to make a fantasy impact in 2018. Anyone who drafts Allen will be disappointed this season.
Coming off of a 2016 season in which they went a respectable 10-6 and made the playoffs, expectations were high for the Dolphins in 2017 to say the least. Unfortunately, after an ACL tear to starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill , expectations had to be curbed. Inserted into the starting lineup was washed up Jay Cutler who – pulled from an incredibly brief stint in the announcers booth – looked every bit as rusty as you would expect. Without a quarterback and star running back (traded Jay Ajayi midseason), the Dolphins floundered to a reciprocal record of their 2016 finish... 6-10. This offseason featured a host of significant additions to the Dolphins roster, both in free agency and trades, but also in impact draft picks.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Ryan Tannehill
I could have gone in a variety of directions here, but ultimately the success of this Dolphins team is going to hinge on the play of Ryan Tannehill . Say all of the critical things you want about him, but if he can return to his pre injury form, there is no doubt that Tannehill will once again be a legitimate fantasy star. Keep in mind that when healthy, Tannehill was one of the better fantasy quarterbacks in the league, averaging over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns over the span of the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Mike Gesicki
Truth be told, I was incredibly tempted to give this one to rookie running back Kalen Ballage, as I believe that he will quickly prove to be one half of an excellent one-two punch in the Dolphins backfield (more on that later). After thinking long and hard about it though, realistically there is no way that Gesicki isn’t heavily featured as Miami’s offensive focal point. They not only spent an early-round selection on him, but the rookie tight end is already being anointed as their day one starter. With his size, leaping ability and sure hands, expect a lot of touchdowns coming out of Gesicki in 2018.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: DeVante Parker
I gave this award to Parker entering last season and while he drew more targets than in the season prior, his production actually dipped slightly. I correctly predicted his step forward in terms of coordinator confidence, but who could have expected that Jay Cutler and Matt Moore were going to be throwing him the ball come Week 1. This year I am not only expecting a healthy Ryan Tannehill , but I also am doubling down on the progression in Parker. He’s too talented to not eventually emerge as a number one wideout in this league.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Frank Gore
I want to preface by saying that I love Frank Gore and respect the hell out of him and what he has accomplished throughout his storied career, BUT… He’s 35 freaking years old now! I get that he hasn’t missed a game since 2010, but he also hasn’t averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in any of the last three seasons. Yes his durability at such an advanced age is remarkable, but at this point, his game is a liability. With what his statistics indicate, giving him the workload of a lead back will be a net negative in comparison to the rest of the league and what they are getting from their running back positions. The Dolphins will quickly learn this, eventually splitting the touches between Kenyan Drake – who looked great towards the end of last season – and rookie Kalen Ballage. Gore’s workload shouldn’t be what it once was, and his role in this otherwise young backfield will instead be as a speaker of wisdom.
New England Patriots
I feel like I write the same thing in this spot every year… The Pats had themselves another excellent season, winning the AFC. While this year they came up just one win shy of yet another Super Bowl title, in fantasy terms the story remains the same. Tom Brady and Gronk balled out, while a collection of running backs and receivers pitched in to do some undercover fantasy damage. The biggest different in this upcoming season from last is that now the Pats will be without Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola . Having said that, Jordan Matthews now joins the fold, along with a host of undervalued rookies and veteran free agents. Like I said… it’s the same story every year.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Tom Brady
Do I really need to elaborate here? Let’s move on…
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Sony Michel
Looking at the Patriots backfield is always tough on the eyes of fantasy owners, but early on, here’s how I’m calling it… For most of the regular season and especially in the postseason last year, the way things played out in the New England backfield was actually kind of straight forward – Dion Lewis led things with around 15 carries per game, followed by James White and his exclusive work on third downs and other passing situation duties. Rex Burkhead would chime in to vulture most of the red zone looks – either gadget pass plays or goal line carries – while Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden quickly fell out of favor in the rotation early on in the season. This year shouldn’t be much different… Just insert rookie Sony Michel ’s name into the now vacant Dion Lewis slot and things should remain largely the same for 2018.
Now I know you are probably very skeptical about Bill Belichick allowing a rookie to immediately lead his backfield, by my question is this… If he didn’t plan on featuring the kid, then why would he use a first rounder on him?
Even if Michel isn’t the “lead back” as a rookie, in the worst case scenario he would switch spots with Rex Burkhead , giving him somewhere around 10 impactful touches per game. To answer the question in a long winded way, those 10 touches per game would be enough for Michel to win the Patriots Fantasy Rookie of the Year Award in 2018.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Julian Edelman
This one is kind of a cop out, as Edelman is coming back from injury, however in terms of on-the-field improvement, I think that Edelman can actually end up being even better than he was in 2016. With no Brandin Cooks and no Danny Amendola this season, there is no question that Edelman will be Brady’s number one option at the wide receiver position. The last time that could be said was in 2013 – Edelman’s best statistical season, where he caught 105 balls for 1,056 yards, and six touchdowns. If 100-percent healthy this season, I expect the slot receiver to return to that type of form.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Jeremy Hill
As I laid out in detail above, there is a lot going on in the Patriots backfield right now. With potentially six names currently in the mix, someone is going to have to disappoint come Week 1. With Sony Michel , Rex Burkhead , and James White all but locked into roster spots and guaranteed backfield roles, that leaves Mike Gillislee , Jeremy Hill , and Brandon Bolden left to battle it out in training camp. Bolden should currently have a leg up on the other two, as he is a committed special teams player... If the Pats plan on going crazy and carrying five tailbacks on their regular season roster like they did last year, then that still leaves a training camp battle between Gillislee and Hill. Both offer a similar skill-set – big, powerful, red zone threat – but in my eyes, what separates them is a couple of things. 1) Playbook and scheme familiarity, and 2) ball security. Gillislee has the edge in both of those areas over Hill, making Hill my top candidate to be cut this preseason. Let this be a PSA for those hoping to draft Jeremy Hill and get themselves the next LeGarrette Blount … Don’t do it.
New York Jets
While the Jets may have only won five games last year, that was five more games than most expected them to win. And you may think that I am using hyperbole, but it is true… The Jets were the odds on favorite in 2017 to finish last in the NFL with an 0-16 record. To say that five wins was a surprise is quite the understatement. Looking to improve on a decent year, the Jets went out and got themselves a franchise quarterback early on in the draft, while their subsequent picks were spent on improving their defensive front seven. Eclipsing the five win mark may be hard to do once again this season, but a better foundation for the future has certainly been built this offseason.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Isaiah Crowell
Over the last two seasons – behind the Browns and their winless offensive line, mind you – Crowell has averaged over 900 rushing yards and over 4.5 yards per carry. He has also been an underutilized but productive force in the passing game, as he has averaged over 7.0 yards per reception over the same span. While he will have to cede some of his touches to other backs here in New York, Crowell was brought in to be their lead back and three-down starter. Good health provided, it would be surprising if Crowell didn’t eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Sam Darnold
Word is that the Jets are making their starting quarterback job an open competition headed into camp. While Darnold may be the youngest and most raw player on the roster, he is also the most talented quarterback that they have. With head coach Todd Bowles and his coaching staff in a do-or-die situation this season, they don’t have enough time to allow their young quarterback to sit and marinate on the sidelines for a year. He is going to play and I believe that he is going to be successful… And even if he isn’t great as a rookie, the Jets don’t exactly have any other rookies worth noting on the offensive end, so he may just win this award by default.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Terrelle Pryor
I get it, Pryor was laughably terrible last season with the Redskins, however let’s not forget that just one year prior he hauled in 77 balls for over 1,000 receiving yards. Now seemingly healthy and joining a Jets roster looking for a “go to” target on the outside, Pryor has the opportunity to return to form. Even if he doesn’t eclipse the 1,000 yard mark or 70 receptions again, it’s nearly impossible that he won’t drastically improve over his 2017 numbers. Simply put, Pryor should be fantasy relevant once again in 2018.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Thomas Rawls
With the aforementioned Isaiah Crowell now in the fold to go along with last season successes such as Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire , Thomas Rawls seems to be the odd man out in this Jets backfield. Beyond the crowded nature of his positional surroundings, Rawls has also proven to be very unreliable in terms of durability over the last handful of seasons, missing a total of 14 games since 2015. Anyone banking on him in their drafts will be sadly disappointed.