2015 Fantasy Football: Who is the Top Dog?
With the news of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell being handed down a 3 game suspension we will now have a full out debate as to who should be the first pick off the board of your fantasy football drafts this year. We all knew Bell would be punished in some fashion for his marijuana-induced DUI that happened last preseason, and the chatter was at least 2 games and no more than 4. Looks like they settled on that middle number of 3. (*Side bar: LeGarrette Blount, now of the Patriots, who was with Bell during the incident received a 1-game suspension earlier in the offseason). Of course Bell is going to appeal the decision but at best I can't see more than 1 game, if any, getting knocked off his time. If Bell had been able to play a full 16 game slate in 2015 he'd be the unanimous selection as first overall pick in all formats, but missing near a quarter of a season will definitely dent his value, but how much? Does Bell even deserve the chance to be top dog in 2015 even missing time? If not then who is worthy of that first pick? I've got a list of guys who could realistically go in that top slot, broken down into 3 categories.
1) The Candidates
A list of 3 players who, in my opinion, will be the best options for those of you picking number one. Personally I would take these gentlemen as the top 3 overall with order being debatable.
2) The Wildcards
Two more players who, given the right situations, could also be considered a top pick. Not as clear cut as the top 3, but I can see people making an argument for them and when the season is all played out if one of them finishes as a top point scorer it wouldn't be shocking.
3) The Fools Gold
The final two names of the top dog puzzle are what I am going to call fool’s gold. Guys who some people may want and some will take with the top pick, but who shouldn't be. Both of these guys will make solid round one selections but taking them first overall wouldn't be the smartest move so don't like the bright lights and glitz trick you into wasting your top pick on one of them.
- Jamaal Charles RB Kansas City Chiefs: The news of Bell’s suspension, which again we were all expecting, bumped one guy up to number one in my mind. Mr. Charles. Jamaal has been a consensus top 5 pick each of the past 2 years (would have been 3 but coming off a torn ACL in 2012 I definitely understand the apprehension there) and 2015 should be no different. Charles has been a model of consistency at the running back position. A position that has seen fewer and fewer lead backs and more committee backfields. While Knile Davis did prove himself last season in the time missed by Charles last year. Davis averaged 92 yards and a score in games he got more than 15 rush attempts last year. While Davis as a handcuff is imperative, (arguably the most necessary cuff this year) don’t be scared he is going to take away a significant touches from J-Chuck. Charles has been a top 10 back each of the last 3 seasons (no worse than 8th) including being the best RB in 2013. He’s posted at least 1200 scrimmage yards and 6TDs in each year since 2012. Even with posting those numbers he still has never had a season with 300+ carries, which is impressive in itself he posts the numbers he does with fewer touches than a lot of lead backs. Now Kansas City is upgrading in spots that held them back last year, particularly the interior of the offensive line and wide receiver position. Last year a Chiefs WR did not catch a single TD. You almost have to try to not score a touchdown all season to pull off a stat that embarrassing. Kansas City touched on the wide outs by releasing the overrated Dwayne Bowe and bringing in Jeremey Maclin. Maclin is younger, and more versatile than Bowe in the passing game. Maclin also already spent time under Andy Reid, where Mac averaged 64-863-6, so jumping right into the system should not be a problem. The fact that defenses will actually have to scheme for a wide out this year will already open up more for Charles. Add in the two new guards, Ben Grubbs via trade with the Saints and Paul Fanaika in free agency, and Charles should see more holes up the gut as well as openings on the outside when Alex Smith hits him with those little swing passes that we’ve all watched in awe as Charles took it to the house. Jamaal needs to be a top 3 player off all boards and if you select 4th or later and Jamaal is still setting around thank Jerry Rice, or Brett Favre, or LaDainian Tomlinson, or whoever because you were just given a gift from the fantasy gods.
- Eddie Lacy RB Green Bay Packers: Not sure how many people will have Lacy as a top 3 pick, but if they don’t then shame on them. Lacy plays on arguably the best offense in the NFL with arguably the best quarterback, and arguably the best wide receiving corps. When you know opposing defenses have to prepare for Aaron Rodgers throwing to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and the emergence of Devante Adams, Lacy is going to see lots of open lanes. With so much firepower through the air you’d think that Lacy would be down in that mid-first round selection but he should NOT make it away from the top 3 picks! Lacy put up nearly identical rushing efforts his first two seasons, going for 1178 & 11 scores in 2013 and 1139 with 9TDs last year. Where Lacy took a step forward is pass-catching. He increased his receptions by 20% year one to two (35 to 42), while his yardage went up 66% (257 to 427) and touchdowns increased an incredible 400% (from none to 4). Last year Lacy was put on a carry-count it seemed early on getting 15+ carries just once in the first 10 games, but got 15+ in 5 of the final 6 games of the season. The coaches wanted Lacy fresh for the Packers playoff run and it makes sense in the real world, and in my opinion, is a HUGE asset for Lacy owners in the fantasy world. While Lacy may not be the guy to carry you to a victory single-handed in the first half of the season, having a main back ramping up and getting hot a when the fantasy playoffs are around the corner (as opposed to slowly beginning to break down like many other featured backs) is an advantage you can’t overlook. Of course we all want our top pick to post 20 points a week but we all know it’s rare to see that happen week in and week out. So why not rely on your other positions to score the first few weeks and sit back as the season winds down knowing you got a hard-running, fresh-legged freak toting the rock for your squad in November and December. Lacy also had the 2nd most runs of 15+ yards by running backs last season (18), while gaining 33% of his total yards on such runs! Just like Marshawn Lynch it just goes to show how a bruising back can also show a burst of speed and get away from tacklers. Lacy needs to be off the board in the first 3 selections, if he isn’t someone made a bad bad decision and you could be the beneficiary!
- Le'Veon Bell RB Pittsburgh Steelers: Even with his suspension looming, Bell still needs to be off the board before pick number four. Top choice? Missing 3 games will be tough to swallow if you want to nab him with the first pick, but there can be benefits as well. First and foremost is the obvious health factor. Missing 3 games at the jump off the season means Bell will, just like a carry-counted Lacy, be able to run harder, faster, and more come the fantasy playoffs. Check. The second thing that factors in for Bell is the offense he plays on. I’m not saying the Steelers are on the Packers level offensively, but they are ahead of the Chiefs and most other teams that will be mentioned on this list. The Steelers finished 7th among NFL teams last year in points scored (436) and 2nd in yards (6577) in the team’s third year under OC Todd Haley. Haley likes to throw RB screens and that won’t change in 2015. Last year Bell had 105 targets. That was 2nd on the team only behind Antonio Brown’s 181; and among all running backs Bell’s 105 was 2nd behind just Matt Forte (more on him later) and his 130. In fact just 4 RBs in the league last year had more than 75 targets (Forte, Bell, Fred Jackson with 90, and Shane Vereen with 78) so Bell’s PPR value is also tops when it comes to backs. Side note: Speaking of receiving, Bell had the 3rd fewest drops among RBs last year dropping just 4 passes of his 105 targets. Last season Bell was on the field for 943 snaps while scoring 287 fantasy points in standard leagues (370 in PPR leagues). If we do the math and break down his fantasy points per touch at .30 and work that into his 58 snaps per game and factor in he’s going to play 13 games in 2015, assuming he’s at least on the same pace as last year, that means Bell would end the year with 226 fantasy points (293 PPR). Those numbers still would have landed Bell as the 7th best back last year (5th PPR), not shabby for a 1st round pick who is slated to miss almost a quarter of the year. Bell’s missing time will scare a few people away from using their top pick on him, and again I can blame those who have the top pick, even pick two, but Bell SHOULD NOT slip out of the top 3; even with his missing time he should still finish as a RB1 and likely be a top 5 back come years end.
- Adrian Peterson RB Minnesota Vikings ... For now: Papa Peterson (you see what I did there?) is a true wildcard when it comes to a first round selection. Outside of his rookie season he has been a consensus first round pick every year. Even after tearing his ACL at the end of 2012, coming into 2013 he still got first round consideration and was drafted there by more people than less. Now Peterson is in a unique situation, having missed virtually all of 2014 due to a suspension for his be(s)witching (ahh another one) behavior. Not only did AP miss a full season but he will be 30 coming into 2015. Not only will he be 30 coming off a missed season but he and the Vikings are looking to be in a stalemate as far as playing. Peterson wants to move on, and that’s clear. Minnesota doesn’t want him to go anywhere, and that’s just as clear. Now is Minnesota gets a nice package for a 30-year old back they’d be smart to take the deal. There has been talk linking Peterson to Dallas and to Arizona and both those teams, if they do land AP, would put him in the top overall pick selection. Again with everything factoring in against him I’d still fell more comfortable with one of the 3 previous mentioned gentlemen, but Peterson fans couldn’t be knocked for taking their boy off the board first if he does move on. The Cowboys had the best offensive line in the league last year (2nd best in run blocking) that helped DeMarco Murray become the NFL’s rushing champion in 2014 with over 1800 yards (no other back eclipsed 1400). The Cardinals ranked 24th among teams at the end of 2014 according to profootballfocus.com, but that was a vast improvement from their dead last finish in 2013. Obviously Dallas has a better line to offer over the Cards, however the Vikings ranked just 3 spots ahead of Arizona but Minnesota dropped from 6th in 2013 to 21st. Dallas and Arizona’s o-lines are both trending in the right direction with Minnesota’s is going the opposite way. Dallas and Arizona both have established veteran quarterbacks, more talented skilled positions to put around Peterson, and their defenses are both ahead of the Vikings (although Minnesota is building a formidable defense under Mike Zimmer). If we just take the numbers AP has posted over his career they are impressive to say the least. Even in his 2 “down” years in 2011 (lost 4 games to injury) and 2013 (missed 2 games) he managed to finish 8th and 6th among RBs when the years were all said and done. Peterson has a head for the end zone too, never having less than 10TDs on the ground so air scores (average 1 per year) are bonus material. While his age, missing time, and still being on the Vikings scare me now, his value will rise if he does move on from Minnesota. Getting traded to either Dallas or Arizona skyrockets AP’s value with all the pluses he will see on the field. His age and missing time won’t change (and that still factors in), but he will be out for blood and to prove he still has it and if anyone can put on a show after missing a year and hitting that “Running Back Over-the-Hill” mark, it’s Peterson. Should he stay with the Vikings I like him end round 1, beginning of round 2 would be a gift. Going to the Cowboys or Cardinals puts him in the top slot conversation but would definitely make him a top 5 selection.
- Matt Forte RB Chicago Bears (PPR): Forte may be the one name on this list that other people talking about top picks will mention, but he at least needs a mention. First and foremost I can’t see taking Forte in standard scoring, he is only an option in the PPR format. He should still go round 1 in all scoring systems, but when receptions factor in then he needs to jump up the board. Forte is the one solid piece the Bears offense has. I know Alshon Jeffery has some experience and is now the man with Brandon Marshall suiting up the AFC New York squad, plus Martellus Bennett will see more looks at the tight end position with Marshall’s 106 targets gone. But Matt Forte has been the model of consistency and is going to see more looks in 2015. Forte has finished in the top 5 among RBs in targets every year but 2 since 2008, and the two years he missed the top 5 he finished top 10, the only back to accomplish that feat. He’s averaging 83 targets per year since he entered the NFL 7 years ago while catching 77% of passes thrown his way. Impressive isn’t it? Still not convinced? What if I told you Forte is the only back in the league to have 1400 or more scrimmage yards every year since 2008. THE ONLY BACK! Not Peterson, or Charles, or any other name you could even consider for a first round pick, let alone the top selection, has been that consistent over their entire careers. Forte is also the only back to have 900+ rush yards in each season since 2008 (Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore would have made the list had they not got suspended/injured). I know it would take a lot of balls to take Forte over the aforementioned contestants but he’s been around longer and done a lot with less than most. He may not have the upside or flash as the other guys listed but fantasy football is won with consistency and Forte gives you that more than anyone else. If you make him the top dog (in a PPR league) you will get some dumb stares from league mates, but you know you got yourself a solid and consistent first pick with the opportunity for more touches this year than any previous season.
THE FOOLS GOLD
- DeMarco Murray RB Philadelphia Eagles: Murray is going to be the one guy that will be immensely over drafted this year. Not to say he doesn't deserve to go round 1, he definitely does but forget first overall, he shouldn't be a top 5 pick. Murray's 1845 yards last year were beyond impressive, and his season probably isn't fully appreciated like it should be. He posted 8 straight 100-yard games to kick off 2014 and finished with 12 games hitting the century mark or better, which is the second most games of 100+ yards in a season in NFL history. His 1845 rushing yards not only lead the league last year, but since 2000 there's only been 7 instances of a back finishing with more yards than Murray did in 2014. He also lead the league with 13 rushing TDs. Murray's 304 fantasy points via standard scoring were also tops in the league among RBs and the 4th most points scored by a back in the last 5 seasons. Sounds like Murray has an argument to be off the board first right? Hold your horses lets get into what holds him, or should hold him, from being drafted way too early. 2014 was the only season in his 4 year career that DeMarco made it through all 16 games. His injury history (ankle, foot, and knee) don't bode well for him making it through entire seasons regularly which has to be a concern for this year. Not only does he never play full slates, but he also had 393 carries last year. That's a huge number even for a younger back like Murray and it will take its toll on him this season. Over the last 10 seasons we've seen just 3 backs (Michael Turner in 2008, Larry Johnson in 2006, and Shaun Alexander in 2005) get more than 375 rushing attempts in a year. The following year none of those backs played a full season (Turner played the most games at 11), none got more than surpassed 900 yards, and only Turner was able to finish inside the top 24 among RBs the following season (barely ... he finished 23rd in 2009). Also with how impressive Murray was with 100-yard games, before last year he only had two instances in three seasons in which he had back-to-back 100-yard performance. What about the team around Murray? The Cowboys had the best offensive line in the NFL last year and they will at the top again in 2015. Statistically Murray's new team, the Eagles, finished 2nd behind Dallas in terms of O-line ranks at the end of 2014 and believe it or not Philadelphia's line was ranked 1st in run blocking (Dallas was 2nd). However the Birds got rid of one of there most reliable lineman in Todd Herremans, and are supposedly shopping their Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis. That line will suffer a set back of some sort and in turn as will Murray. Not only will he be behind a line that will be a step behind his old run blockers, but the wide outs and quarterback positions are also a downgrade for DeMarco. Tony Romo may not be Tom Brady but he's a hell of a lot better than Sam Bradford, a guy who since being hurt week 7 of 2013, has played as many games as you or me. And forget about a Dez Bryant-type threat taking the top off defenses for Murray. The Eagles top outside option at WR as of today is Riley Cooper ... Pardon me while I laugh ... Ok that's better. When it's all said and done Chip Kelly is innovative and will rotate Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles in to help keep Muarry fresh and defenses honest, and while Murray's North-South running style will fit better with Kelly's scheme than McCoy's East-West jump-cutting running. Kelly has proven he can bring in players and plug them into his system but will Murray produce top-tier RB numbers again it's so many factors going against him? I say no and to draft him anytime before late round one is, as Darth Helmet once said, ludicrous.
- Marshawn Lynch RB Seattle Seahawks: BeastMode. Just one word and everyone in the football world knows who I mean and how exciting of a player he is to watch on the field. His off the field people skills may be equivalent to a shy 3rd grader who just moved to America and still doesn't speak English but thats nota factor to his fantasy football ranking and also a story for another time (like Super Bowl time since his audio gems will be replayed to death for the next how many years). So is Mr. Lynch worthy of the top slot in 2015? Much like Murray he has a lot of signs pointing towards no, with very few aiming towards taking him off the board first. Last season Lynch tied with Murray with 13 touchdowns on the ground, as well as finished as the top TD scorer (non-quarterback) with 17 total trips to pay dirt. Those 17 scores proved to be a career high. Not only did Lynch set career bests in rushing TDs, receiving TDs, and receiving yards he also averaged a personal high at just a shade under 17 (16.8) fantasy points per game. Since his first full season in Seattle in 2011 through 2014, Marshawn has never had less than 1200 rushing yards and no fewer than 11TDs. He's never finished worse than 5th among RBs in standard scoring in that time either. All positive, but now for the bad news the Seahawks got Jimmy Graham. Ok if your a Seattle fan that's not bad news at all, hell if you just love watching football that's great news to see a top TE in the league join one of the best teams. The NFL. If you're a fantasy player than Graham will definitely have somewhat of a negative effect on Lynch. Graham will no doubt take some defenders away from the middle of the field so I can't see Lynch's yardage getting lowered too much, maybe even see an increase from his 1306 yards in 2014, but he is going to suffer on the goal line and in the red zone. You don't acquire a Jimmy Graham level player to be used just as a decoy and when you get a weapon like that near the goal line he will be the first look more often than not. Even if Graham gets blanketed that opens up rushing lanes for Russell Wilson (the same Russell Wilson who rushed for 6 scores in 2014) to bootleg and find an easier-than-normal way into the end zone. The Hawks also had to give up a Pro Bowl caliber center in Max Unger in the Graham trade as well as their first round pick this season so that O-line could realistically see a slight downgrade, from the 19th best line last year (according to profootballfocus.com). Much like Matt Frote, Lynch is extremely consistent which is huge in this game. Unlike Forte, who's workload should increase this year, Lynch would see a decrease in touches if anything after getting 385 total touches (including playoffs) in 2014. Factor in the addition of Graham and emergence of Russell Wilson as an elite QB in the league and Lynch should still finish as a RB1 but if he finished outside the top 5 backs this year for the first time since 2010, I wouldn't be shocked.
In the end any one of the previously mentioned names is a solid start to a potential championship winning team. Some of the players mentioned above certainly deserve, and will go at the top of many drafts this coming season. Some players mentioned shouldn't be taken with the top choice, but again some drafts will see them get selected first overall. Even with the pressure, or luxury (depending on your viewpoint) of the first selection in your draft you have to select the player you think can and will bring home the bacon come December. It's going to be someone on this list, but only one can finish the 2015 season as the Top Dog!