Fantasy experts debate Lions RBs, mid-round WRs and late-August sleepers

Every Friday until the end of fantasy draft season, SI.com fantasy football experts Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice will bat around a number of questions in a quest to help you assemble the best fantasy team possible.

1. Where do you slot James White now that Dion Lewis is out for the foreseeable future?

Beller: The announcement that Lewis would undergo a second knee surgery, placing him on the shelf indefinitely, saved a lot of fantasy owners from themselves. That he was still going in the fourth or fifth round of a typical draft despite the fact that we hadn’t seen him on the field was one of the greatest mysteries of the summer. What made it even less defensible was the presence of White, who can do just about everything Lewis can and wasn’t rehabbing a serious knee injury.

White played just 30% of New England’s snaps last year, serving as no more than a bit player when Lewis was healthy. Lewis tore his ACL in Week 9 against Washington. Over the team’s final eight games, White had 33 receptions for 358 yards and six total touchdowns. Add in his modest rushing totals, and he averaged 9.49 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Lewis may be a bit quicker and shiftier than White, but there’s no doubt the Wisconsin product can fill the pass-catching role out of New England’s backfield. If Lewis and White were one player, they would have finished as the No. 10 running back in standard leagues last year. White’s ceiling isn’t nearly that high, but he can give the fantasy community RB2 numbers this season. I’m drafting him as a top-35 running back.

Fitz: I’m less optimistic. White is probably going to be a mid-round pick throughout the rest of the draft season, but I don’t think he’s a prudent investment at that cost. He’s currently my RB50 in standard formats, RB44 in PPR.

White’s value evaporates whenever Lewis comes back, which could be as early as October. Yes, White scored six TDs over a six-game stretch last season after Lewis tore his ACL, but he had a mere 11 rushing attempts over that span. Four of those TDs were receptions, and White scored them with Tom Brady at quarterback, not Jimmy Garoppolo, the stock boy who’ll be minding the store while Brady serves a four-game suspension to begin the season.

White will be at the mercy of game flow. He’ll probably be an asset in any early-season game in which the Patriots are playing from behind, but how often does that happen? In games where the Patriots are leading comfortably, or in games where the Patriots are facing a weak defensive front seven, it’ll be hammer time with LeGarrette Blount. There’s also the Tyler Gaffney factor — he’s a talented wild card in the New England backfield who could drain White’s value. It’s probably best to avoid White unless he falls into the late rounds of a PPR league.

• Michael Beller’s player rankings | Pat Fitzmaurice’s player rankings

2. Give us a player who still isn’t getting enough attention from drafters.

Beller: Stefon Diggs has started to climb up draft boards a bit, but he’s still not getting his due. I understand the concerns some fantasy owners may have for him. Adrian Peterson still dominates the offense, and the Vikings are designed to win games with their rushing attack and defense. Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t looked great throwing the deep ball in his first two years in the league, and unless he improves, that limits Diggs’s ceiling. The second-year player out of Maryland went quiet to end last season, topping 60 yards just once in his last nine games.

Those concerns are legitimate, but overstated. Let’s start with those last nine games. Yes, Diggs didn’t rate as much of a fantasy weapon in that time, but he also got five or fewer targets six times. He was hamstrung by an offense that will have to adapt this season. Diggs looked the part of a future star in his first four games last year, hauling in 25 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns, good for 13.48 points per game. Diggs was one of the stars of Minnesota’s training camp and should be in the range of 120 targets this season. Somehow, he’s still outside the top-40 receivers in ADP, behind Sterling Shepard, Michael Crabtree and Jordan Matthews. He’ll outperform all three this season and has the ceiling to end the year ranked 30th or better at the position.

Fitz: Chris Thompson has an ADP of RB69, according to FantasyPros.com, but I think he makes an ideal late-round pick, especially in PPR leagues. He’s poised to play a hefty role for Washington, which may well have the NFL’s weakest collection of running backs. Thompson is expected to get all of the passing-down work for a team that doesn’t run the ball effectively. Opposing defenses won’t be forced to honor Washington’s feeble running game, pass rushers will be able to tee off on Kirk Cousins, and with his self-preservation instincts kicking in, Cousins might repeatedly throw checkdown passes to his safety-valve RB. It’s not hard to imagine Thompson racking up 60-70 receptions.

Projected starter Matt Jones is terrible and is now hurt—he has a sprained AC joint in his shoulder that could keep him out of action in Week 1—so Thompson might have some rushing upside even though he isn’t really cut out to be an every-down back. Still, it’s probably safe to say that he’s a better runner than, say, Theo Riddick, and yet Riddick will be drafted in almost every league. Thompson is going undrafted in most leagues.

3. What a difference a year makes for Ameer Abdullah. Would you rather have him at his ADP (80.5), or Lions teammate Theo Riddick at his (135.8)?

Beller: Was there a player more popular at this time a year ago than Abdullah? Man, the bloom came off that rose fast. I still think there are things about Abdullah’s game to like. He has game-breaking speed. He has above-average cutback ability. I worry about the environment though, one in which the Lions will be passing a lot. The Lions have always been a pass-happy team in the Matthew Stafford era, and the overall team context could force that to an even higher gear this season. That’s a game script that favors Riddick and not Abdullah.

Riddick’s price tag makes him attainable for every fantasy owner. Abdullah, meanwhile, is coming off the board alongside Derrick Henry, DeVante Parker, Blake Bortles and Kevin White. I’m not necessarily the world’s biggest Riddick fan, but if I’m going to own one Detroit running back, it will likely be him. More often than not, I’m going to find it too hard to pay the price for Abdullah when so many other attractive options remain on the board. The one exception could come in a pure Zero-RB draft, where Abdullah could fit into a roster of mid-round targets. I’d be happy with him as part of a stable with other mid-round backs like T.J. Yeldon and Charles Sims.

Fitz: Riddick is very good at catching passes out of the backfield, but he’s completely one-dimensional. With a career average of 2.9 yards per carry, Riddick offers nothing whatsoever in the running game. Sure, he’ll catch passes, but what are the odds that he comes close to last year’s 80 receptions on 99 targets? He finished with 830 yards from scrimmage and three TDs in 2015. I’ll bet he’s closer to 600 yards from scrimmage this year, and I doubt we see an uptick in touchdowns.

I wish we were getting a deeper discount on Abdullah. On the other hand, he’s far more affordable than he was a year ago, when a scintillating 45-yard preseason run against the Jets sent fantasy owners into an Abdullah feeding frenzy. It seems as if the overdrafting of Abdullah last year has skewed the perception of him this year. This is a talented dude who managed to average 4.2 yards per carry while running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. He’s not going to lose carries to Riddick, and I’m not entirely buying the notion that Abdullah will cede goal line work to beloved underdog Zach Zenner. Unfortunately, the Lions’ run blocking still stinks. I’m not interested in Abdullah at his seventh-round ADP, but when he fell into the ninth-round of a 12-team draft last weekend, I pounced. Abdullah is far more interesting to be than a one-trick pony like Riddick.

4. Golden Tate, Eric Decker, Doug Baldwin, Michael Floyd and Donte Moncrief are within five ADP spots of each other. Which one will have the best season?

Beller: For me, this comes down to two of my favorite players this season: Decker and Floyd. I’m off Baldwin, simply because I’m not passing on proven receivers to take a guy who was a WR5 over 4.5 seasons before a hot streak the likes of which we’ve rarely seen to end last season. I like Tate and Moncrief, especially the latter, but I think Decker and Floyd are better bets.

Decker was Mr. Consistency last year, putting up at least 80 yards or a touchdown in all 15 games he played and scoring more than 12 points eight times. He has been a top-10 fantasy receiver in three of the last four years and still managed to rack up 962 yards and five touchdowns in the fourth while catching passes from Geno Smith and Michael Vick. Decker may come up short of the elite tier, but the guy just delivers.

Floyd is admittedly a bit of a pet favorite of mine, going back to his 1,041-yard, five-touchdown season in 2013. He fell well short of expectations in 2014 but shook off an early-season hand injury to turn into Arizona’s best receiver last season. In nine games from Week 6 through Week 16 (we’re throwing out Week 17 because Arizona had the NFC West locked up and rolled over in a 36–6 loss to Seattle), Floyd had 43 receptions for 679 yards and six touchdowns, which translates to 11.54 points per game. He topped 100 yards five times in a seven-game stretch, hauling in at least six passes in three of those contests. There’s plenty of reason to believe that this is the year he puts it all together for 16 games.

So, who is it, Decker or Floyd? The former has the safer floor, while the latter has more upside. Overall team composition to that point of the draft will help you make your decision, but in a vacuum I’m going with Decker’s reliability by a nose over Floyd’s potential.

Fitz: This is difficult. I own shares of all five guys and think they’re all fairly valued. It pains me to forsake the perennially underrated Decker, who’s quietly scored 49 TDs over the last five years and may have been fantasy football’s most consistent week-to-week performer last season. But I’m going with the guy Beller was so quick to dismiss: Baldwin.

No, Baldwin isn’t going to score 14 touchdowns again. But I don’t think Baldwin’s November-to-January eruption last season was an anomaly; I think we saw Baldwin take a huge leap forward during that two-month run (which lasted into the playoffs). This was not a fluky amassing of numbers. We saw it with our own eyes—Baldwin dominated opponents down the stretch last year. And he didn’t just steal lunch money from weaklings. Baldwin destroyed some good defenses, including those of the Cardinals, Vikings and Rams. He had a league-high 1,007 receiving yards out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s become the go-to target for one of the best pure passers in the game, Russell Wilson.

A lot of fantasy owners are looking at Doug Baldwin and seeing nothing but a blinking neon “regression” sign. That’s a mistake. The fiery Baldwin has become a damn good receiver. This isn’t to say he’s a WR1. He’s not in the same class as Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones, and he’s not on the next tier either. But he’s priced as a low-end WR2, and he’s very capable of providing a good return on that sort of investment.

5. Who’s your favorite late-round (ADP 150 or worse) receiver target?

Beller: There’s a chance I’ve spent too much time watching the Browns this preseason, but I’m legitimately excited about owning as many shares of Terrelle Pryor as I possibly can. Pryor had an excellent camp, winning a starting gig opposite Corey Coleman, at least until Josh Gordon returns from his four-game suspension. It’s entirely possible he remains a starter when Gordon returns, but at least we know he’ll have a month to prove himself.

And then there were the games. Oh, the games. Pryor has reeled in a deep ball in both of Cleveland’s preseason games this season. The first was a 49-yard play on which he ran right past the corner. The second, however, was something special. Pryor burned Desmond Trufant, roundly viewed as one of the best corners in the league, accelerating past him after the two were even when Robert Griffin III put the ball in the air, resulting in a 50-yard scoring strike. It was the exact same nine-route he ran the week before, but to see him beat a corner like Trufant on it was eye-opening.

We know four things for certain about Pryor: He can stretch the field, he’s an excellent athlete, he’ll have at least four games as a starter, and he’s going to work hard, as he showed by turning himself into a viable NFL receiver after spending his entire college career at Ohio State as a quarterback. That’s exactly the sort of player I want to target latee.

Fitz: For me it’s Bruce Ellington, who has an overall ADP of 183.3 and a positional ADP of WR66, per FantasyPros.com. He’s looking like a sneaky-good bet to pile up big reception totals as the 49ers’ slot receiver.

There are two assumptions we can safely make about the 49ers this season: 1) They’re going to be bad; and 2) their offense is going to operate at a brisk pace under Chip Kelly. Both of those inevitabilities bode well for Ellington. The 49ers are going to spend a lot of time playing from behind, which means they’re going to throw a lot. They’re also going to run a lot of plays, just as the Eagles did when Kelly was the boss in Philly, which will provide a turbo boost to the counting stats of San Francisco’s skill players.

As Jon Moore noted in an article for RotoViz earlier this year, Ellington was one of the most athletic members of the vaunted rookie WR class of 2014. And while a lot of people are high on Torrey Smith (including me), Smith has never really been a high-volume receiver. Ellington has only 19 receptions over his first two seasons, but he reportedly had a terrific camp and appears ready for lift-off. He makes for a nice late-round dart throw.



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