Four Players to Flip in Dynasty This Preseason

The preseason is a great time to test the trade waters in dynasty and keeper leagues, as player values seemingly rise and fall with every new piece of news that hits the wire. Below are some players that should command more in a trade than may be warranted. By no means should you be selling for pennies on the dollar. All four are inside the top 70 players in our latest Dynasty ADP Rankings. I happen to think all four are currently overvalued given their present situation, track record, and future outlook.

Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns

It’s no surprise that with Odell Beckham’s arrival in Cleveland, Jarvis Landry will almost certainly see a downtick in targets from last year’s team-leading 149. While he may slide back into his more natural slot receiver role on a full-time basis with Beckham in town, that’s unlikely to be a positive development in a loaded Browns offense.

In 2018 Cleveland moved Landry around in the formation a fair amount, leading to his running less than 60% of his routes out of the slot. There was also a pretty well-defined shift in his usage between the first and second halves of last season. Much of that was precipitated by Cleveland’s in-season youth movement on offense and a coaching change.

First, there was the injury to Tyrod Taylor in Week 3, which forced the Browns hand a bit in rolling out number one overall pick Bake Mayfield as their starting quarterback. Mayfield played well enough to hang onto the job and seemed to get better every week. In the Browns first eight games (two with Taylor at quarterback, one where both played, and six Mayfield starts) Landry was targeted ten times or more in all but one game, finishing the first half of the season with 49 catches on 94 targets for 528 yards and two touchdowns.

As Mayfield grew more comfortable in the offense, Nick Chubb took over as the starting running back in mid-October when Carlos Hyde was traded to Jacksonville. His move into the starter’s role marked an immediate upgrade to the Browns running game. Just weeks later Freddie Kitchens was promoted to offensive coordinator after a Week 8 loss to the Steelers that finally saw head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley get fired. While Landry remained the primary target, from that point on Mayfield spread the ball around in the passing game, regularly utilizing second-year tight end David Njoku and the running backs in the short passing game. So much so, that Landry failed to receive double-digit targets even once over the Browns final eight games, finishing with 32 catches on 55 targets for 448 yards and two touchdowns over that stretch.

The volume of targets wasn’t the only thing that changed for Landry as the offense evolved under Kitchens. The way Cleveland looked to utilize him was also a dramatic departure from what we had seen earlier in the season, as well as back in Miami. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, over his final two seasons in Miami Landry’s average targeted air yards were 6.5 and 6.1 respectively, while in his first season in Cleveland his average targeted air yards shot up to 10.8. Similarly, his average yards per catch jumped to 12.0, the second highest of his career, and he averaged 14.0 yards per catch over the final eight games of the season, over three yards more than his first half average of fewer than 11.0 yards per reception.

There was also a significant shift in the offensive sets being called by now head coach, Freddie Kitchens in the second half. From Week 9 onward, no team ran more “13 personnel” (three tight ends sets) than Cleveland’s 29% per Sharp Football. And the offseason signing of Demetrius Harris, an athletically talented, though inconsistent pass catcher stuck behind Travis Kelce in Kansas City, suggests more of the same to come. As the Browns TE2, he represents a big upgrade from Darren Fells, who occupied the role in Cleveland last season. It was an under the radar offseason move that one has to assume the Browns made with Kitchens’ offensive scheme in mind and could also cost Landry targets.

From a fantasy standpoint, the downfield targets in 2018 would seem to be positive for Landry’s future, but adding a true alpha dog receiver in Odell Beckham is going to drastically alter what might have been. As noted, Landry was already seeing his target volume squeezed in the second half by Njoku’s development and some surprising production from rookie wideouts Antonio Callaway and Damion Ratley, as well as the ghost of Breshad Perriman, not to mention the short-yardage targets going to the running backs. His growth into more of a downfield threat staved off what could have been a much weaker fantasy showing last season, but that likely isn’t an option he’ll have with Beckham in town and the far more explosive and athletic Callaway and Njoku continuing to develop.

In our latest ADP rankings, we’ve got Landry hovering in the mid-40s, which is tough to stomach for a receiver that will turn 27-years old this season, and whose role in the offense seems ill-defined given the bevy of talent around him. Barring an extended absence by Beckham, Landry is going to be hard pressed to improve on or even match what we saw last season, and as this offense continues to grow under Mayfield and Kitchens’ direction, I expect his production to take a hit.

Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts

Without question, one of the biggest outperformers of his average draft position last season was Colts tight end, Eric Ebron. The former first-round pick left Detroit via free agency last year after four seasons of underachieving for the Lions. He was largely an afterthought in most drafts, lasting until the 13th round and going well after teammate and fellow tight end Jack Doyle, who on average, was being scooped up two or three rounds earlier. And with good reason.

Through his first four years in the league, Ebron never posted a top ten fantasy season at the tight end position. Then last season he jumped into the top five (4th in PPR) at the position, posting career highs in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. But there are several things here that should give us pause when it comes to Ebron’s long-term value.

First, there were the injuries to Jack Doyle, who out-snapped Ebron significantly in the six games that both were active, save for the Week 12 contest in which he suffered a season-ending kidney injury. In the other five, Doyle played between 73% and 97% of the offensive snaps each week, while Ebron never managed to get above 45% in games where both were active. Doyle also out-targeted Ebron 32 to 22 in those six games, relegating Ebron to playing second fiddle in instances where both were healthy.

Next, there’s the completely ridiculous touchdown rate last season, particularly when it comes to a position like tight end. Over his first four NFL seasons, Ebron played in 56 games and totaled eleven visits to the end zone on 186 receptions, while last season he was on the receiving end of thirteen scores on just 66 receptions, and even managed to add a rushing touchdown on three carries. Making fourteen trips to the end zone on just 69 touches is simply unsustainable. While Andrew Luck can certainly elevate the play of his pass catchers, as we’ve seen in the past, Ebron ran less than 20 routes in ten of the sixteen games he played last season, yet still managed to average nearly one touchdown for every five passes he caught.

And when it comes to Ebron, actually “catching” passes has always been a bit of a challenge. Widely maligned in Detroit for key drops, he didn’t exactly make strides in his first season with the Colts, as his drop rate fell from 9.3% to 8.2%, and he remained among the league’s leading offenders in that category.

Finally, what teams choose to address in the offseason can be a good barometer for how they feel about their personnel. With one of the league’s worst depth charts at the wide receiver position, the Colts were forced to give more than twenty starts to marginal NFL talents like Zach Pascal, Dontrelle Inman, Ryan Grant, and Chester Rogers. Moreover, rookie running back Nyheim Hines was used extensively out of the slot and finished the season with 63 catches on 81 targets, something the Colts offseason moves seem to suggest they don’t intend to repeat.

Indy used a second-round pick on lightning-quick Ohio State wideout Parris Campbell and signed former Carolina Panther, Devin Funchess in free agency. Former VCU basketball player turned NFL tight end, Mo Alie-Cox continues to learn the position and is drawing rave reviews this offseason, and Jack Doyle will presumably return healthy and ready to go in 2019. Also back in the mix is second-year receiver Deon Cain, who was lighting up training camp last summer before his rookie year was prematurely ended by a preseason ACL tear.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and the fact that the Colts have gone to the extent they have in adding new pass catchers, even after Ebron’s breakout 2018 campaign, is telling. He enters 2019 in the final season of a two year deal with Indianapolis, and there’s nothing to suggest he’s significantly improved overall as a player, despite last season’s fantasy production. It’s more likely that he benefitted from staying healthy on a team that started out thin in the receiving department and got worse as the season went on, struggling to find enough pass catchers to make the offense go. With that in mind, those thinking of Ebron as a top ten tight end going forward are sure to be disappointed.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks

Lockett is a player that’s been rocketing up dynasty draft boards since Doug Baldwin’s career-ending injury forced him into early retirement this spring. On the back of a career-high 57 catches for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018, Lockett finished 18th in PPR scoring among fantasy wideouts and is the presumed WR1 in Seattle heading into the season. Currently going in the late fourth or early fifth round, with an ADP right around 50, Lockett has jumped up nearly 20 spots in average draft position since Baldwin was cut.

But is that climb warranted?

There’s no denying that Lockett had a breakout 2018 campaign, but some of the underlying numbers are a bit concerning. The first thing that jumps out is the level of efficiency we saw from him last season. His 81.43% catch rate was near the top of the league for wide receivers, and according to NFL Football Operations, quarterback Russell Wilson posted a perfect passer rating (158.3) when targeting Lockett last season. To quote further from that note, since 2002 the previous high water mark for wide receiver targets when a quarterback posted a perfect passer rating had been 15. Lockett was targeted 70 times last season. So either Lockett is on the verge of becoming a truly elite NFL wideout or some serious regression is on the way. I’m betting on the latter.

Further bolstering the unsustainable efficiency argument, Lockett averaged 16.9 yards per reception and 13.5 air yards per target last season. Both numbers were top 20 among wide receivers, and only Will Fuller, who played in just seven games, managed to catch more than 70% of his targets while also landing in the top 20 pass catchers in terms of yards per reception and air yards per target. This is important to note because despite moving around the formation more in 2018, throughout his career Lockett has been more of a field stretcher than anything else, though much of the offseason chatter has him taking over a significant portion of Doug Baldwin’s snaps out of the slot.

Lockett certainly has the ability to slide into Doug Baldwin’s role in the offense but to date the two profile as very different players. While Lockett has the ability to win against both man and zone, and it would be foolish to argue against his ability to create separation, it’s simply not the way he’s ever been utilized by the Seahawks and a vast departure from what we’ve seen him do best as he heads into his age 27 season. While the move may bolster his targets and reception totals, his average depth of target, and likely his efficiency with those targets, is going to take a hit.

It’s also worth noting that Baldwin’s best fantasy seasons in Seattle came when the Seahawks running game struggled with injuries and a lack of consistent production. At the moment, the two-headed monster of Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny seems well on their way to righting that ship, which has to give us pause as to just how many more targets there are to be had for Lockett going forward. Last season Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson attempted just 427 passes, his lowest total since 2013 and the first time he’s dipped below 545 attempts since 2015. And given the improved running game, it’s a trend that could very well continue.

Finally, we can’t ignore the steps Seattle took in addressing the wide receiver position in this year’s draft. After spending second and fourth-round picks on DK Metcalf and Gary Jennings respectively, the Seahawks traded back into the seventh round (a round in which they initially had no picks) to take John Ursua, who profiles exclusively as a slot receiver. The second-year receiver, David Moore also showed some flashes as a rookie, as did tight end Will Dissly, who had eight catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns through the first four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. While the Seahawks receiving corps is short on experience, there’s certainly a lot of draft capital tied up in pass catchers here, and both Metcalf and Jennings have speed to burn.

To be sure, Tyler Lockett’s 2018 season was excellent, but it’s unlikely to be predictive of the future. With Baldwin gone and a lot of young talent in town, Lockett will need to both siphon off a solid chunk of his former teammate’s targets and hold off all the new competition, while at the same time trying to maintain similar efficiency to 2018. That seems like a tall order, and I think there’s a very good chance we just saw Lockett’s best fantasy season.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner is perhaps one of the toughest players to value in dynasty at the moment, and we currently project him as the sixteenth ranked player overall and RB10. Personally, if I can get that kind of return on investment from a guy that was largely added via the waiver wire last summer or mostly as a late-round flier in drafts, I’m all about making a move.

Full disclosure, I’m a James Conner fan. But how can you not be? The guy was just fun to watch running over and through defenders at the University of Pittsburgh as both a freshman and a sophomore, the latter of which saw him garner ACC Player of the Year honors, as well as second-team AP All American. Then came the Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis he received while rehabbing a knee injury that cost him nearly his entire junior season. He rebounded by returning to the field cancer-free to go over a thousand yards rushing again as a senior and then was drafted by the hometown Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. It was a heart-warming story of a player overcoming adversity in a sport where all too often the off-the-field stories aren’t always so positive.

Despite his third round pedigree, almost no one expected what we saw from Conner last season when he was thrust into the starting running back role in Pittsburgh. For much of the summer we heard speculation that Le’Veon Bell would sit out part of the season, but few expected that he’d eventually forego the entire thing, making Conner the starting running back for the first twelve weeks of the season before an ankle injury knocked him out until the season finale. Without question, Conner benefitted from a Steelers offense built to utilize Bell in both the running and passing game, and to Pittsburgh’s credit, they had enough faith in Conner to simply plug and play the second year back in their scheme.

Conner thrived as the starter for the first twelve weeks, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 201 totes and supplemented the rushing numbers with 52 receptions, while making a combined 13 trips to the end zone. In retrospect, we know Conner feasted on some of the league’s worst run defenses, as eight of Conners’ thirteen total games, and seven of the first twelve came against teams that finished the season ranked 25th or worse against the run according to Football Outsiders DVOA metric.

During the weeks he missed due to the ankle injury, versatile rookie Jaylen Samuels started three games at running back for the Steelers and carried the ball 42 times over the stretch, averaging better than 5.3 yards per carry. He also added a dozen catches for 105 yards and scored a receiving touchdown. That success prompted speculation that perhaps Conners’ production had more to do with the way Pittsburgh utilized the running back position than it did the player in it. It’s also noteworthy that Samuels seemed to retain the receiving back role when Conner returned in a must-win Week 17 matchup for Pittsburgh. While he logged just two carries to Conners’ fourteen, he was targeted eight times, securing seven of them for 40 yards, compared to Conner’s three catches on three targets for 30 yards.

The Steelers also took steps to further bolster their backfield in the draft, using a pick on former Kentucky Wildcat bell-cow, Benny Snell, who also figures to be in the mix for touches. Heading into training camp it’s logical to assume that Conner is in line to lead the Pittsburgh backfield in carries and probably retains somewhat of a bell-cow type role, given head coach, Mike Tomlin’s propensity to deploy his running backs in that manner. Still, Samuels is the far more versatile of the two and considerably more competent in the passing game.

The overarching concern for me with Conner is that the Steelers keep drafting running backs behind him. This is despite a plethora of other holes to fill on the roster. It suggests that even after his big 2018 season, Pittsburgh isn’t completely sold on him as the long-term solution at running back position. That means Conner’s current valuation may be at its absolute peak. If I can get 2019 preseason market value for Conner in a dynasty trade, I’m falling all over myself to hit the accept button.

Check out my other Dynasty Football Factory content in my archives and drop me a follow on Twitter @rotocoach.


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wkiessling

Dynasty Football & DFS Staff Writer & Editor at @DFF_Dynasty. #DynastyFootball #DFFArmy #FantasyFootball #SFB8 #SFB9

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