9 Players on the Hot Seat (Fantasy Football)
Participation trophies get a bad rap, but fantasy football hands them out in droves. Every year there are players who aren’t very good but provide value simply because they’re going to step onto the field and play. LeGarrette Blount, Todd Gurley, Frank Gore, and Jeremy Hill all averaged under 4.0 YPC last season; all finished as top 20 running backs.
Of course, those are just the success stories. Matt Jones was a mid-round pick last season because there didn’t appear to be any competition in the Washington backfield. Oops. Jones lost his job by Week 8 and finished third among Redskin running backs in fantasy points.
In this article, I’m going to discuss players with tenuous job security heading into 2017. These players can offer a strong return on investment… provided they stay on the field.
Blake Bortles (QB – JAC)
The Jaguars have spent big on marquee defensive free agents each of the last two years. They overspent the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft on Leonard Fournette. They brought back Tom Coughlin, a relic of 90s ground-and-pound. It’s pretty clear what Jacksonville wants to do: run the ball, play defense, and grind out 16-13 wins.
The one thing they’re not going to tolerate, then, is the one thing Blake Bortles does well: turn the ball over. The new front office has no ties to Bortles, and after three mostly-disastrous years will have no issues giving him a quick hook if he can’t take care of the ball.
Backup Chad Henne isn’t good, nor is he particularly adept at avoiding turnovers either, but the Jaguars jumped to resign him early in the offseason, so they presumably like him well enough. If Bortles struggles early, I could see the Jaguars making the quick switch.
Alex Smith (QB – KC)
The consensus is Alex Smith at least has the job locked down for 2017 while the raw Pat Mahomes gets up to speed. I’m less certain. Since 2000, 26 quarterbacks have been drafted in the top 10 of the NFL Draft.
Only four of them started fewer than seven games their rookie year. That suggests Mahomes—the 10th overall pick after Kansas City traded an arm, a leg, and a first born to move up and get him—is a lot closer to playing under center than we think.
It helps that Smith wasn’t very good in 2016. You have to imagine Andy Reid re-watched his anemic performance in last year’s playoff loss to the Steelers and decided something has to change. Right now the Chiefs have a Super Bowl roster with an AFC Divisional Round quarterback. They may determine the high risk, high reward move to Mahomes is better than the low ceiling imposed by Smith.
Eddie Lacy (RB – SEA)
Any time an athlete needs contractual incentives to lose weight, his starting job is probably not secure. The Seahawks only invested one year and $2.9M guaranteed in Lacy, and as Matt Flynn will tell you, Pete Carroll and Co. are one of the most merit-driven staffs in the league. They don’t just hand over starting jobs to new free agents.
C.J. Prosise will dominate passing-down work. Alex Collins still exists. I love Lacy this year as a faux bounce back candidate (despite the perception, he was pretty good last season), but you have to draft him knowing he could end up a dud.
Spencer Ware (RB – KC)
Ware may be like goldfish crackers—you just want a handful, not the entire box. In 2015, Ware was insanely efficient co-starring with Charcandrick West as the replacements for Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs gave Ware lead man status in 2016, and while he started out hot (5.0 YPC through Week 7), the volume took a toll, and he slowed down considerably after a Week 8 concussion (3.7 YPC in his final seven games).
The primary threat is Kareem Hunt, an uber-productive college player who the Chiefs traded up to grab 86th overall in this year’s draft. Hunt is more likely to supplant West as the backup, but there are already rumors of him taking over for Ware as the lead back. If Ware’s second half struggles bleed into 2017, Hunt could leverage his backup duties into a majority of the workload by midseason (I’m just kidding about the goldfish; I would eat that entire Costco-sized milk carton and feel great about it).
Rob Kelley (RB – WAS)
Kelley reminds me of another fat Rob, King Robert Baratheon. If you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, Baratheon was great at leading a rebellion to overthrow a tyrannical king, but not so great at actually ruling once he had seized the crown. Rob Kelley was similarly impressive while deposing incumbent Matt Jones last year, but didn’t look nearly as good once he had the starter job to himself.
Kelley’s YPC fell from 5.38 in October to 4.52 in November to 3.62 in December, and he almost completely vanished when Washington was trailing. People have been a little too quick to anoint fourth round pick Samaje Perine as the heir to the Iron Throne, er, back to own in Washington, but Perine is a more talented player than the undrafted, unathletic Kelley.
Kelvin Benjamin (WR – CAR)
Benjamin peaked about 20 minutes into the 2016 NFL season when he beat the vaunted Broncos defense for a touchdown, the first of just eight touchdowns Denver would give up to a wide receiver all season. A string of ho-hum performances following Week 2 eventually led the Panthers to shy away from Benjamin.
After Week 9, he averaged just three receptions per game while losing snaps to Carolina’s pu pu platter of receivers. Then the Panthers spent their first two draft picks on short-yardage receiving options. Then Kelvin Benjamin showed up to OTAs looking like he ate a few Costco-sized milk cartons of goldfish.
Benjamin already saw his playing time decrease last season, and while he’s still the purported #1 in Carolina, it’s a tenuous grip. Currently the WR34 by ECR, he’s hanging in the middle rounds as the “I don’t want him, but he is their top option, right?” player. Unfortunately, the promise of volume that makes him worth drafting may be a house of cards.
Kevin White (WR – CHI)
19 catches on 36 targets. 187 receiving yards. 0 touchdowns. Four games played.
That’s not quite what the Bears had in mind when they made White the seventh overall pick in the 2015 Draft. They certainly want him to keep his job across from 2016 surprise Cam Meredith, but they don’t seem to be banking on it.
Chicago spent this offseason compiling a Madden 2014 all-star ensemble of receivers: Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle. It’s not the stiffest competition, but it’s not exactly a vote of confidence either.
White, for his part, didn’t appear concerned about the new competition. He just went along with his offseason learning how to run and…wait, what? He’s needed to learn how to run? Without looking it up, I feel quite confident that no receiver has ever finished as a top-24 fantasy receiver if he didn’t already have that skill locked down by age 24.
None of this bodes well for White in 2017. He has one of the broadest ranges of outcomes in ECR, with a high ranking of 102 and a low of 253. I’m leaning heavily toward the latter.
Coby Fleener (TE – NO)
Is this cheating? Fleener already lost his job last year when Josh Hill quietly out-snapped him in five out of seven games between the Saints’ bye and Hill’s season-ending injury in Week 13. It appears Fleener will open 2017 as the starter once again, and he’s become a popular bounce-back candidate now that his ADP has fallen while his situation remains ideal.
But after flopping in 2016 from self-inflicted wounds, his leash will be super-short. A few more drops or blown routes and Football Fabio will be back to the bench.
Zach Miller (TE – CHI)
The Bears had one of the surprise picks early in the NFL Draft, scooping up Ashland’s Adam Shaheen ahead of schedule in Round 2. The Bears also brought in Dion Sims to a three-year contract, including a very generous $10 million guaranteed. All of that is bad news for Zach Miller, who turns 33 this year and only played 10 games last season due to injury.
The Bears are going to be a disaster this season, and my guess is by Week 7 they have interim coach Dowell Loggains turning to backup QB Mitch Trubisky. Whenever that is (and it’s “when,” not “if”) it’s likely the Bears will also pivot away from journeyman Miller in favor of the younger options.