College Football Playoff Preview

1 Alabama

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Photo Credits: Bleacher Report

Much to the surprise of no one, Alabama has already established themselves as the “team to beat” just 3 weeks into the season. After throttling previously 3 Florida State in a highly anticipated Week 1 matchup, Alabama has once again secured themselves as the premiere powerhouse in college football.Alabama has a tough test late in the season, where they will travel to 17 Mississippi State on 11/11. Let’s be real though, this is Alabama; there is a very good chance that they win this game, and even if they don’t, there is almost as good as a chance that they will make the Playoff. At this point in the season, there is no foreseeable future where Alabama will not be playoff-bound once again.

Alabama has a tough test late in the season, where they will travel to 17 Mississippi State on 11/11. Let’s be real though, this is Alabama; there is a very good chance that they win this game, and even if they don’t, there is almost as good as a chance that they will make the Playoff. At this point in the season, there is no foreseeable future where Alabama will not be playoff-bound once again.

 

2 Clemson

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Photo Credits: College Football News

After winning their first College Football Playoff, Clemson has rebounded strongly this season, even with the loss of significant offensive playmakers in Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams. Clemson’s defensive line might very well be the best position group in all of college football, and their offense has been very good this year too, averaging nearly 520 yards per contest.

Just like Alabama, Clemson controls their own destiny and could probably survive a loss to a ranked team and still make the Playoff. After destroying Virginia Tech, Clemson only faces one tough tests over the rest of the season: a home game against 12 Florida State on 11/11. After their domineering wins over Louisville and Virginia Tech, if Clemson wins the ACC, they will likely be a shoe-in to the Playoff.

 

3 Oklahoma

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Photo Credits: AP Photo

It is often said that revenge is the best form of motivation; Oklahoma is the living embodiment of that saying. After getting embarrassed by the Buckeyes in front of their fans in Norman last year, Oklahoma showed them up in an assertive win over then 3 Ohio State. Since then, Oklahoma has continued their trend of being incredibly dominant; led by Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield, the Sooners’ offense is currently 4th in the nation, averaging an electric 599 yards per game.

Oklahoma has two tough tests remaining on their schedule: a road game at 15 Oklahoma State on 11/4, followed up by a home game against 8 TCU in the following week. Oklahoma’s remaining schedule is far from easy, but their strength of schedule and a huge win over Ohio State allows them to likely be in the Playoff even with 1 loss, as long as they win the Big 12.

 

4 Penn State

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Photo Credits: USA Today

After being left out of the College Football Playoff last season in one of the biggest snubs in recent history, Penn State has bounced back stronger than ever this year, obliterating their measly opponents thus far. Led by Heisman-favorite Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, the Lions possess one of the most potent offenses in the country. Barkley has been an absolute force for the Lions, averaging nearly 200 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown per game.

With plenty of tough opponents left on their schedule, Penn State has tons of opportunities to build up their resume. On 10/21, the Lions will play 7 Michigan at home, and the following week, they will travel to Columbus to play Ohio State. If they survive these two tough tests, there is no foreseeable future in which Penn State will not make the College Football Playoff.

 

5 Georgia

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Photo Credits: Bleacher Report

After starting the season off everyone’s radar, Georgia has quickly burst onto the scene and is currently the #5 ranked team in the country. Although Georgia has a potent offense, most notably led by their stout rushing attack in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia’s true excellence resides in their defense. Through their first five games, which included two ranked opponents and a stellar Tennessee team, the Bulldogs have astoundingly only allowed 46 points.

Georgia’s schedule includes two tough opponents at the end of the year in a home contest against 21 Florida on 10/28 and a road test at 12 Auburn on 11/11. Although Georgia has a very impressive resume, which includes two top-25 wins, as well as a pounding of then 17 Mississippi State and Tennessee, they still have work to do. Unless a team ahead of them loses, Georgia will not make the playoff unless they beat Alabama in the SEC title game.

 

6 Washington

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Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated

While these top five teams have been stealing the national headlines, Washington has been slowly creeping its way into playoff contention. While Washington has been doing anything too special, as their offense is barely averaging over 400 yards per game and their defense has been good but not stellar, they have absolutely destroyed every team they have played thus far. Their closest game was all the way back in Week 1, where they manhandled Rutgers in a 16 point victory.

More so than any other team on this list, Washington needs help to get into the playoff. With a very weak schedule and a lackluster Pac 12, it is foreseeable that Washington could win out and still potentially miss the playoff. If they want any chance of getting in, it is imperative that they beat 20 Utah on 11/18 and 11 Washington State on 11/25 and win the Pac 12.

 

7 Michigan

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Photo Credits: AP Photo

For a team that is ranked #7 in the country, I have never seen one that is so incapable, yet has infinite potential. Even though they have played quite terribly (especially in the first half) in their first couple of games, Michigan has managed to dominate some quite terrible teams. Once Michigan starts to put it together, however, everyone should watch out, as they are capable of beating anyone. If they play like they did in the second half of their season opener versus Florida, they very well might be the best team in the country.

Although they are currently on the outside and looking in, Michigan has more opportunities to bolster their resume than any other team in the country. They face two very tough road tests at 4 Penn State on 10/21 and 9 Wisconsin on 11/18, followed up by a difficult homestand against 10 Ohio State on 11/25. However, if Michigan somehow survives all of these tests, they have a guaranteed spot in the College Football Playoff.

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, CBS Sports, Football Reference, and NCAA.com. Thank you for reading!

Written by Jason Platkin

Cover Photo Credits: Getty Images

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Bread and Butter

Whether it’s Britton’s cutter, Kershaw’s curve, or Sale’s slider, every pitcher has their bread and butter pitch. It’s their version of the one play you run in Madden that nobody can stop. No matter how often you run “PA F Slide,” those chains keep moving until you’re in the end zone. We all hate that “one-play” guy. But if it helps me win then, hey, I too would run it every damn time. Using the same methodology for baseball, one would assume a pitcher should throw his best pitch a lot. Right? Who wouldn’t want to score a touchdown (or in this case, a whiff) on every play? Fangraphs developed a stat called “Pitch Values” which tries to quantify how good a pitcher has performed when using a particular pitch. If a pitcher whiffs on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball often (well, not this year), those numbers will be reflected in their wFB number. This stat is “the total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch.” A problem arises, however, due to some pitchers throwing different amounts of each pitch. Therefore, Fangraphs created another category that standardizes the values on a per 100 pitch basis. Who are the pitchers that aren’t throwing that nasty cheese often enough? Using pitch values, let’s dive in.

 

Fastball—Jeremy Hellickson
wFB/C–.54 (16th among 63 qualified pitchers)
FB%-47.4% (58th among qualified)

Jeremy Hellickson was once a phenom. The former Rookie of the Year was supposed to be the next young pitcher the Rays somehow always seem to discover. David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore all have had successful careers with the Rays. None of them won ROY. Hellickson’s career has significantly fallen off, however. He has bounced around the NL since returning to the AL East in a July acquisition by the Orioles. With a 5.26 ERA, nobody was expecting the rookie version of Hellickson to step on the mound. With the Orioles, he has a 6.87 ERA. Hellickson’s fastball has been underutilized. Rather, he has been changeup heavy, tossing it 28.7% of the time (3rd most) but with a -1.78 wCH/C. He can throw the fastball more. Not asking for much, here. My mom can throw a fastball.

 

Slider–Lance Lynn
wSl/C—1.44 (10th among 46 qualified pitchers)
Sl%–12.4%(39th among qualified)

It’s fitting that Lynn plays for one of the most consistent franchises in sports. With an ERA under 4.00 every year of his career, Lance has been a rock for the Cardinals. Lynn started off with a repertoire guided by his curveball in 2012, where he threw it 17.8% of the time. Since then, those breaking balls have been substituted for fastballs with his slider staying around 10%. Previous to his Tommy John surgery, the slider was ineffective. He posted negative wSl/C every year of his career. However, this year his slider has been stronger than the ones of Severino, Darvish, and even Chris Sale. If he can keep this trend up, Lynn could become a more than reliable option behind Carlos Martinez.

 

Curveball–Masahiro Tanaka
wCB/C–1.63 (7th among 52 qualified pitchers)
CB%–6.2% (46th among qualified)

To succeed at Yankee Stadium, you better not hang your curveballs. That short porch in right field will rough you up. Masahiro Tanaka knows this all too well, as he has been somewhat home run happy this year with a 20.3 HR/FB %. Tanaka is an interesting case. His velocity is up on all of his pitches by a significant factor. This demonstrates the idea that velocity and results don’t always have a direct relationship. Despite its velocity jump, his fastball has been awful. His -2.24 wFB/C is the worst in the league by a healthy margin. Tanaka lives on his off-speed stuff. His sinker is what brought him to America, and now it’s time he implements the curveball more often.

 

Changeup—Gerrit Cole
wCH/C–1.30 (12th among 59 qualified pitchers)
CH%–10.8%(31st among qualified)

Gerrit Cole has been the subject of many trade rumors. A young, controllable starter like Cole should warrant the same kind of package the A’s got for Sonny Gray. He is the perfect candidate to throw his off-speed pitches more. Cole’s fastball ranks 2nd in velocity behind Luis Severino. Throwing the changeup more often would set hitters up for failure when they expect a pitch 8 MPH slower. Cole has been good this year, but not special. His HR/9 has more than doubled since last year, despite his peripheral stats staying essentially the same. Cole has also doubled his changeup usage, so he is on the right track. He recognizes the problem and has started to go after it. If he keeps using his secondary pitches to set up the fastball, Cole will rebuild his trade value and could find himself in a new uniform (Pinstripes? Please?!) soon.

Fantasy Football Outlook 2017: Bust Picks

As discussed in my most recent article (see: Fantasy Football Outlook 2017: Sleeper Picks), the number 1 mistake fantasy owners make when evaluating players is using the “eye test” instead of actual statistics. More so with bust picks than sleeper picks, fantasy owners overvalue their personal preferences, whether it be what team the player is on or the style they play, which leads them to pick injury-prone players who are past their primes or flashy players who can’t put up big numbers. In fact, three out of the four bust candidates I identify are among the most popular players in the NFL, which in turn has led them to be over-drafted. Let’s take a look at this year’s bust picks.

 

Russell Wilson, QB – Seattle Seahawks; ADP – 68

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Photo Credits: Getty Images

Out of all the bust picks mentioned in this article, this one gives me by far the biggest amount of hesitation. Russell Wilson easily has the talent to churn out yet another season, where he could finish among the top three to five quarterbacks for fantasy scoring, just as he did in 2014 and 2015. In some regards, it doesn’t seem like much has changed; the Legion of Boom is still intact and better than ever, Wilson has nursed his injuries back to full health, and the Lacy-Rawls-Prosise running back committee will pretty much match Lynch’s production in his latter years. However, Wilson’s changing role and Seattle’s inability to address their issues during this offseason will prevent him from returning to glory.

The most troubling stat line about Wilson, from a fantasy football perspective, is that he finished with a career high in passing yards (4,219) and a near career-best in completion percentage (64.7%), but only finished as the 14th ranked quarterback. In terms of passing, Wilson hit his ceiling last year (aside from his meager 21 touchdown passes), but finished nowhere near he did in the previous two years. How is that possible? Well, there’s a straightforward explanation; Wilson simply stopped running the ball, which has severely hampered his fantasy production. After establishing himself as an elite mobile quarterback, Wilson posted career lows last year in rushing attempts (72), rushing yards (259), and rushing touchdowns (one). This last season was the third time in the past four years that Wilson has only rushed for one touchdown on the year. With his limited mobility, which can be attributed to his injuries and the Seahawks telling him to run less, Wilson ran less and consequently threw 11 interceptions, a career high.

This offseason, the Seahawks did Wilson no favors by not improving their offensive line or receiving corps. Last season, the Seahawks had one of the worst offensive lines in football, which not only crippled Wilson’s mobility and the Seahawks’ run game but also contributed to Wilson getting injured after being hit so frequently. The Seahawks also did nothing to improve their thin receiving corps, which still lacks a solid second wide receiver after ultra-talented Doug Baldwin or a third receiving threat after Jimmy Graham. Additionally, the Seahawks’ running back committee will give headaches to both the Seahawks’ staff and Russell Wilson all season long. The trio of Lacy, Rawls, and Prosise will need time to figure out how this committee work, which should destroy the run game for the first couple of weeks in the season. Later in the season, I believe that this talented group will steal touches from Wilson, which will do him no favors either. The moral of the story is avoid Russell Wilson unless he falls very far down the board.

 

Lamar Miller, RB – Houston Texans; ADP – 26

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Photo Credits: AP Images

There’s no beating around the bush; Lamar Miller was simply one of fantasy football’s biggest let downs last year. Obviously, this was a huge surprise to many fantasy players, as Miller was coming off a couple of very productive seasons in Miami, and joining a much better NFL team in the Houston Texans. It is not to say that he can’t turn things around the season, as he is still the skilled back we once thought he was, but at his current ADP, Miller is a prime candidate to be a bust.

To be frank, Lamar Miller was downright terrible last year; nearly every advanced metric ranked him in the bottom third of qualified running backs and most didn’t even take into effect the horrible defenses the AFC South presented last year (the Jaguars, Colts, and Titans all vastly improved their defenses this offseason). Last season, Miller was just one of 13 running backs among the 42 who qualified (minimum 100 rushes) to finish with a negative DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). This stat pretty much indicated that against an average NFL defense, Miller performed worse than the average NFL running back. Although the sample size is somewhat limited as we are just looking at one season (this is generous – Miller had 299 touches), it is downright terrifying that someone with this stat line is being drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round.

What’s potentially even more concerning about Miller is his lack of upside. After averaging 19 touches per game last season, Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien said that he would be monitoring and limiting Miller’s touches, which wasn’t so surprising given his lack of success and massive volume. This wouldn’t be such big news if the Texans didn’t go out and draft D’Onta Foreman, who will still at least five touches per game as well as short-yardage goal-line work from Miller. With less of an opportunity to score touchdowns, Miller’s prospects seem to fall even further. The Texans’ quarterback situation does not appear to be helping much either; Watson will take time to learn the offense, which will be to the detriment of Miller’s performance, and later in the season, will likely throw the ball much more than Savage would, which eats into Miller’s touches as well. All I’m saying is don’t draft Miller with the expectations of him being an RB1.

 

Dez Bryant, WR – Dallas Cowboys; ADP – 21

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Photo Credits: USA Today

Dez Bryant is among one of the most enigmatic players in the NFL; if he could always play the way he did against the Packers, where he torched them for 132 yards and two touchdowns, Bryant would easily be the best receiver in the NFL. Unfortunately, injuries, among a number of other factors, have severely hampered his performance in recent years, which has caused him to be a bit of a letdown. He was better than most give him credit for, as he finished as the 19th receiver in PPR formats, but for his current ADP, he’s going to have to perform a lot better than that just to live up to expectations. With that being said, I am advising fantasy owners to stay away from the brewing mess in Dallas.

Bryant faces a number of challenges that stand in the way between him and a great fantasy season. The first, and most apparent, challenge would be Ezekiel Elliot’s six game suspension. Without Elliot in the backfield, opposing defenses will be able to sit back in zone coverages that divert specific attention to Bryant, which for obvious reasons is not good for his production. Elliot’s suspension lasts for more than half of the fantasy football season (seven out of 13), meaning Bryant should be rendered down for a good portion of the season. Additionally, Bryant appears to be highly injury prone, at least one would think so based on his extensive injury history, so it is fair to assume he will miss at least a game or two with a nagging injury.

Perhaps Bryant’s biggest challenge lies in his astoundingly hard schedule he faces in this upcoming season. I honestly can’t say that I have ever seen an opposing schedule this hard, as Bryant faces nearly every top cover corner in the league. Bryant’s divisional schedule alone includes two games against Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who held Bryant to just two receptions for 18 yards in those games against the Giants, as well as two games against one of the top physical corners in the league, Josh Norman. Outside of the division, Bryant faces brutal competition in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, Patrick Peterson, Marcus Peters, Desmond Trufant, Richard Sherman, and Casey Heyward, just to name a few. To put that into perspective, Bryant faces an elite (top 10) cover corner in 10 out of the 16 games this season. Please hear my warning and do not draft Dez Bryant.

 

Martellus Bennett, TE – Green Bay Packers; ADP – 85

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Photo Credits: ESPN

Let’s get something straight; I’d love to have Martellus Bennett on my fantasy team this season. However, at his current ADP of 85 in PPR formats, Bennett becomes a much less attractive in my opinion, as amazing fantasy talents are on the board. I have always been an advocate on waiting to pick tight ends until late in the draft; once the first tier is gone (Gronkowski, Kelce, Reed, Olsen), the difference between the Eifert (TE6) and Fleener (TE15) is projected to be a meager 2 points per week. If you insist on picking a tight end so early, I would highly recommend pick Kyle Rudolph (ADP – 70) or Zach Ertz (ADP – 87), as both have much more upside than Bennett and are fairly priced (unlike Bennett).

There are two main arguments for not drafting Bennett: his declining performance and poor fit in the Packers’ offense. Regarding the first, Bennett enters the 2017 season, his 10th in the league, at 29 years old. Although Bennett has impressively only missed five games over the last five seasons, it is clear that his performance is on the sharp decline. In his last three full seasons, Bennett’s quarterback has been Jay Cutler twice (2013 and 2014) and Tom Brady (2016). Everyone who has ever watched football before would agree that Brady is the better quarterback, and with Gronkowski out for most of the year, Bennett played roughly the same amount in both offenses. However, despite playing with the greatest quarterback of all time, Bennett averaged 120 less receiving yards, 38 fewer targets, and 28 fewer receptions per year than he did in Chicago; it is foolish to ignore that Bennett is on the decline.

Although Bennett is a couple of years out of his prime at age 29, he can still put up big numbers and be a very productive fantasy asset. However, his problem this year lies more in his team than himself. Aaron Rodgers nor Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ coach, have ever relied on their tight end too heavily, which is mildly concerning for a player that feeds on volume. Historically, Packers’ tight ends have been irrelevant in fantasy. With a loaded receiving corps in Green Bay, which features Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb, as well as wide receiver turned running back Ty Montgomery, Rodgers has many mouths to feed in Green Bay, and this trend seems likely to continue. Unlike in years past, the Packers have a solid running game, which should steal attention from their elite air attack, and hurt Bennett even further. The point I’m trying to make is that Bennett is talented and should be drafted if he falls, but if he doesn’t, his current ADP is way too high for his small window of opportunity.

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, Football Reference, CBS Sports, and Fantasy Pros. Thanks for reading!

Written by Jason Platkin

Cover Photo Credits: Chicago Magazine

Fantasy Football Outlook 2017: Sleeper Picks

The number 1 mistake fantasy hopefuls make when evaluating players is using the “eye test,” meaning they rely on their assessments of players more heavily than actual statistics. In some sense, fantasy football seems somewhat unpredictable when you use this strategy; player performance has very high variance from year to year when factors, such as injury and schedule, are in play. In this article, I identified players, purely from a statistical standpoint, who are being severely undervalued for their ADP, meaning they have a high probability of being a “sleeper” pick for this year. ADP (average draft position) is based on data from PPR leagues on ESPN, Yahoo, and FantasyPros. Let’s take a look at this year’s sleeper picks.

 

Marcus Mariota, QB – Tennessee Titans; ADP – 99

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Photo Credits: SB Nation

As I have mentioned in my previous articles, when evaluating potential in players, you should only be looking at two things: opportunity and talent. Fortunately for fantasy owners, Marcus Mariota has one of the best combination of these two things in the league, but is still going off the draft board in the 9th round! Outside of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees, Mariota may very well be the most talented quarterback in the league with his elite skill set and dual-threat abilities.

After getting off to a very slow start in the 2016 season, Mariota caught fire from weeks 5 to 12, as he was the single highest scoring player in fantasy football over that 8-week span. Given that the fantasy football regular season is only 13 weeks long, this means that Mariota was the highest scoring fantasy player for a majority of the season, which he by no means is getting credit for given his current ADP. Most critics will point out that Mariota slumped heavily at the end of the season. However, Mariota faced the two best defenses in football in Denver and Kansas City and was injured in the game against Jacksonville, which provides a reasonable explanation to all three weeks. The most promising thing about Mariota is that he achieved this incredible run with Rishard Matthews as his top receiver. Matthews is certainly a talented receiver, but now with Decker, Davis, and Taylor also on board, I can’t even begin to imagine Mariota’s potential for this upcoming season.

In terms of opportunity, the only quarterbacks who are better off than Mariota are Tom Brady (with the late addition of Brandin Cooks to the best receiving corps in football) and Jameis Winston (who now has a loaded receiving corps with the additions of OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson). Everything that has happened this offseason has been for the benefit of Mariota; after having one of the worst wide receiver groups in football, the Titans went out and drafted Western Michigan standout Corey Davis and nifty slot receiver Taywan Taylor, and signed a prominent red-zone threat in Eric Decker. On top of having a loaded receiving arsenal, which now includes Davis, Decker, Matthews, Taylor, and Walker, Mariota plays behind an elite offensive line and has the best 1-2 running back punch in football, which both divert attention away from him and helps play-action.

The Titans have the 6th easiest schedule in football this year, which should allow Mariota to thrive against these sub-par defenses. Mariota is poised to have an astounding season, and it is laughable that he is still on the board in the 9th round.

 

Isaiah Crowell, RB – Cleveland Browns; ADP – 34

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Photo Credits: AP Images

Yes, before you start laughing, I know that Isaiah Crowell is on the Cleveland Browns, which have been regarded as one of the most laughable franchises in professional sports over the past decade. Despite playing on one of the most abysmal offenses in NFL history last year (this year’s Jets are soon to join that list as well), Crowell finished with excellent numbers, as he was the 14th highest scoring back in both PPR and non-PPR formats.

In terms of opportunity, Crowell potentially gained more this offseason than any other player in fantasy football at any position. In March, the Browns first went out and signed Kevin Zeitler to the richest contract in NFL history for a guard, only to later that day sign JC Tretter, another lineman. With these two signings, the Browns rival the Cowboys and Titans for the best offensive line in football, which should prove very valuable to Crowell’s 2017 prospects. What’s potentially even more beneficial to Crowell’s potential is the Browns’ overall improvement on both sides of the ball; after drafting Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and DeShone Kizer, signing Kenny Britt, and now having a healthy Corey Coleman, the Browns are poised to be a much better team. Since the Browns will be much improved from last year, they will spend more time on offense, which consequently means more carries for Crowell. In fact, Crowell was the only top-20 running back last year to have fewer than 205 attempts, meaning that Crowell has huge potential with extra carries.

There is nothing I love more in a fantasy player than their coach publicly saying that they are committed to using that player more. After signing Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter this offseason, Browns coach Hue Jackson came out and told media that the Browns would be more committed to using Crowell this off-season. Jackson continued to say that Crowell has the potential to “take it to another level” this season with the additional carries and Browns’ vastly improved offensive line.

Crowell stands to heavily benefit from the Browns’ off-season transactions, as they will give him much more “opportunity” than he had last year. Crowell will undoubtedly put up solid RB2 numbers, and with this new upside, likely even RB1 numbers, which make him a huge steal at his current ADP.

 

Pierre Garcon, WR – San Francisco 49ers; ADP – 77

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Photo Credits: NFL.com

Pierre Garcon has consistently been one of the most underrated fantasy football players over the past couple of years, and this year is no exception. Coming in as the premiere threat for the San Francisco 49ers, Garcon is the clear cut WR1 for San Fran, but his draft position at #77 certainly is not reflecting that.

As the #1 target in San Francisco, Garcon has immense upside because of the volume of targets he should receive. As one of the worst teams in the league, San Francisco will be playing from behind nearly the entire season, meaning that they will have to throw the ball a substantial amount. Although Brian Hoyer is a shaky quarterback at best and certainly a downgrade from Kirk Cousins, Garcon should see a huge bump in his targets from last year, and consequently better fantasy performance even with decreased efficiency. Garcon should also see more red-zone targets, which are quite valuable for fantasy, as he no longer will lose them to the posterizing Jordan Reed or deep threat Desean Jackson.

In one of the most intriguing headlines of the offseason, Kyle Shanahan became the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, meaning that Garcon is reunited with his old coach. Although they last played together in 2013, Garcon was one of the league’s best receivers, as he led the league in receptions. Historically, the top wide receiver has flourished under Shanahan’s system, including Garcon himself in 2013, Andre Johnson in his glory days in the late 2000s, and most recently, Julio Jones. Shanahan’s system fosters great production for the lead receiver, so this certainly gives good reason to expect big things out of Garcon this year.

Going off the board at #77, Pierre Garcon presents a very low-risk player with tremendous potential upside, which makes him a great sleeper pick for this upcoming season.

 

Kyle Rudolph, TE – Minnesota Vikings; ADP – 73

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Photo Credits: ESPN.com

The tight end position is by far the least flashy position in fantasy football, as year after year, the position has been a letdown. Riddled by injury and poor performance, many fantasy owners reach on tight ends to get an “old reliable” type, such as Greg Olsen, instead of waiting for value at the end of the draft. This is a rookie mistake.

Kyle Rudolph presents tremendous value in all formats, particularly in PPR leagues, because of his high target volume. Rudolph led not only the Vikings, but also the entire tight end position with an impressive 132 targets. Rudolph took a huge step forward last year with this increased volume, as he previously averaged 28 yards per game on three targets, while this past year he averaged 52 yards per game on five targets. This is not to say that Rudolph wasn’t targeted in the red zone either; Rudolph ended the year with an impressive seven touchdown receptions.

The Vikings’ offense simply is one of the best offenses in the league for tight ends. Not only does the offensive coordinator support an offense that relies heavily on the tight end, but also Bradford has historically targeted his tight end at a very high rate. This tight end happy offense, along with less defensive coverage because of a healthy Stefon Diggs, should allow Rudolph to build on his career numbers from last year.

After an impressive 2016 campaign that was not inflated by ridiculous red zone statistics, Rudolph is poised to have yet another strong season in 2017. His ADP, on the other hand, does not reflect this, making him a good value pick.

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, Football Reference, CBS Sports, and Fantasy Pros. Thanks for reading!

Written by Jason Platkin

Cover Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated

Fantasy Football: Undervalued Rookies To Target

The 2017 NFL Draft was stacked with potent offensive talent towards the top, headlined by dynamic offensive weapons in Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. However, with respective ADP’s of 29 and 43 (in PPR format), Fournette and McCaffrey won’t make great “value” picks unless they have an Ezekiel Elliot-esque rookie campaign. Let’s take a look at some very underrated rookies who have a chance to make a fantasy impact immediately.

 

Dalvin Cook, RB – Minnesota Vikings; ADP – 61

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Photo Credits: NFL.com

By no means am I arguing that Dalvin Cook is the next Adrian Peterson, but he is a very talented player that should replace him as a top tier back in the long run. Cook was electric at Florida State, as he averaged 6.68 yards per carry, 2,094 yards from scrimmage, and 20 total touchdowns over the past two seasons. Cook is not a one dimensional either; he racked up nearly 500 receiving yards while averaging 14.8 yards per reception last year. Although the Vikings offensive line is quite terrible, Cook’s raw talent and playmaking ability should make him a premier threat for years to come, starting from Day 1.

I can not overstate Cook’s ability, as he very well might be the most offensively talented player in this year’s class. Even with their terrible offensive line, the Vikings still are a prime landing spot for Cook due to their lack of a passing game. From Day 1, Cook will be the premiere threat and centerpiece of their otherwise lackluster offense.

In current PPR formats, Cook is being drafted behind Eddie Lacy, who faces issues not only with his weight but also with stiff competition from Rawls and Prosise, and Spencer Ware, who is in grave danger of losing his job to Hunt (see below). Cook faces little competition for the job (Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon) and the Vikings traded up for him, which virtually guarantees they are going to heavily utilize him this year. Cook is a huge steal at this point in the draft.

 

Kareem Hunt, RB – Kansas City Chiefs: ADP – 112

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Photo Credits: AP Photo

The Kansas City backfield is developing into one of the most interesting storylines of this offseason. After Spencer Ware started the 2016 season off red-hot, he faded very hard down the stretch. Ware’s decline, along with the departure of Jamaal Charles, prompted the Chiefs to draft Kareem Hunt, who is an excellent pass-catcher and a more capable power runner than Ware. Hunt has been gaining massive traction as a potential starter, as his coaches have regularly been praising him, offbeat writers think he is the guy to pick out of Kansas City’s backfield, and he has been lighting it up in OTA’s.

Hunt’s situation is also interesting for an entirely different reason; the Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes II (an excellent pick by the way), who will be the quarterback for the Chiefs in the future. After spending a pick on a “future” player, it seems unlikely that the Chiefs would use their next pick on a player they wouldn’t use immediately, which presents a compelling case that Hunt would start playing immediately. Even as a backup, Hunt still provides great value for his ADP. However, if he gets the starting job either by his talent or Spencer Ware getting hurt (he is injury prone), Hunt immediately becomes a coveted RB1 under Andy Reid’s fantasy-friendly backfield.

In current PPR formats, Kareem Hunt is being drafted behind Matt Forte, who is years past his prime and the backup running back for the Jets, and James White, who is stuck in a crowded Patriots’ backfield and could very well be their 3rd back. At pick 112, Hunt presents tremendous upside with minimal risk (10th round pick), which probably makes him the best value pick in the entire draft.

 

Samaje Perine, RB – Washington Redskins: ADP – 123

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Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated

The Redskins’ backfield is much less convoluted than it might appear. Aside from one incredible primetime performance, Robert Kelley was below average for the rest of his starts, and Perine has everything working for him: praise from the staff, better raw skills than Kelley, and ability to be a 3-down back. It is inevitable that Perine will become the lead back for the Redskins, so the question is more of a “when” than “if.” It is becoming increasingly more likely that Perine assumes the starting role very early in the season, potentially even in the preseason.

I think a lot of fantasy owners forget how talented Perine is because ultra-talented Joe Mixon overshadowed him during his tenure at Oklahoma. Perine was nothing short of amazing though; despite being in a clear time share or even a backup role and missing three games due to injury, Perine recorded 1,166 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. It should come as no surprise that the Redskins staff is raving about his abilities.

In current PPR formats, Samaje Perine is being drafted by Johnathan Stewart, who is losing the vast majority of his carries to Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey, and Darren Sproles, who is currently the 3rd running back on the Eagles’ depth chart behind LeGarrette Blount and Ryan Mathews. Perine is an absolute steal at this point in the draft, given his ability and likelihood to become the starter early in the season, and in my opinion, has the best chance to be the Jordan Howard of this class.

 

Zay Jones, WR – Buffalo Bills: ADP – 158

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Photo Credits: NFL.com

Fantasy value depends on two things: talent and opportunity. Luckily for Zay Jones, he’s got both, as he possesses tremendous talent and found himself in an incredibly opportune situation. There’s no denying that Zay Jones is talented; not only is Jones the career NCAA leader with 399 career receptions, but also is the single-season with an astounding 158 receptions this past season. On top of that, Jones averaged 11.1 yards per reception, bringing his yardage total up to 1,746 receiving yards, which ranks as the 17th most ever in a season.

Regarding opportunity, Jones hit the jackpot as well. Barring any shocking news from the Bills training camp, Jones will open up the season as Buffalo’s #2 wide receiver, which should garner him plenty of targets. Given Sammy Watkins’s injury history, Zay Jones should find himself as Buffalo’s #1 wide receiver at some point in the season, which would give him tremendous upside. Even with Watkins on the field, Jones should have no trouble producing, as defensive fronts will focus on stopping Buffalo’s run-heavy offense and top corners will be covering Watkins.

In current PPR formats, Zay Jones is being drafted behind Tyler Lockett, who vastly underperformed lofty expectations as a sleeper pick last year, and Michael Floyd, who is still dealing with legal ramifications from his DUI. Going off the board in the 13th round, Jones has great value for this point in the draft, given his considerable upside, especially if Watkins happens to get injured.

 

Joe Williams, RB – San Francisco 49ers: ADP – 180

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Photo Credits: NFL.com

After Kyle Shanahan arrived in San Francisco, everything has changed, particularly at the running back position. Hyde, drafted as the “face of the franchise” just three short years ago, may no longer be the starter; Joe Williams, a 4th round pick out of Utah hand picked by Shanahan’s new regime, now has a very legitimate to unseat Carlos Hyde from the starting job immediately. Hyde is going into the final year of his contract, one which the 49ers do not plan on extending, which means that Williams will be getting the carries if the staff views them as equal. On top of that, Hyde is very injury prone, which would give Williams an easy pathway to become the starter if he already isn’t.

While most fantasy players have never even heard of Joe Williams, he is by no means not talented. In fact, at this point, many offbeat writers think that he has more ability than Hyde. Williams is a talented runner who can burst to and through the hole, and can make defenders miss in the open field, even more so than Hyde can. After missing the first month of the 2016 season due to his sister’s death, Williams recorded 1,332 rushing yards and ten touchdowns in just seven games. To put this into perspective of how incredible that performance was, he would have rushed for an astounding mark of 2,093 yards and 16 touchdowns had he played for the entire season. Those 2,093 yards would have been the 15th most in a single season in NCAA history.

In current PPR formats, Joe Williams is being drafted behind Matt Jones, the 3rd running back in Washington’s loaded backfield, and Jeremy Langford, who could start off the season as Chicago’s 3rd or 4th back. So far, everything that has happened this offseason has worked in Williams’s favor, which makes him an excellent value pick for this late in the draft (14th round).

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, Football Reference, CBS Sports, Fantasy Outlook, and FantasyPros. Thanks for reading!

Written by Jason Platkin

Cover Photo Credits: AP Photo

It’s a Rocky Road

The Colorado Rockies are forced to play in the shadow of the same storyline that analysts slap on them every Spring Training. It goes something like: “Coors is a hitter’s park. The pitching won’t hold up in that thin air.” It seems a bit tired. The narrative never changes. However, the start of this season brought some promise. Nolan Arenado, DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon were already established stars. Trevor Story was returning from a thumb injury that ended his 2016 campaign in which he set a record for the most home runs (7) in a team’s first six games. Throw in newly signed Ian Desmond, and there was some buzz in baseball about the Rockies potential for a dominant lineup. The starting rotation, however, had question marks. Coming into opening day, the staff would be rookie heavy. The kids responded, having pitched more than 60% of the Rockies starts and innings. The rookies — Kyle Freeland, 24; Antonio Senzatela, 22; German Marquez, 22; and Jeff Hoffman, 24 carried the load. Tyler Chatwood, the relative old man on the staff, pitched to a solid 4.08 ERA. Greg Holland re-discovered his Royal glory days, capping off the formation of a nice bullpen. After taking 3 of 4 at Wrigley on June 10th, the Rockies found themselves 2.5 games up in the division. Have the Rockies figured out Coors Field? How are they pulling this off? Well, 11 games against the San Francisco Giants could have something to do with it. The Rockies had the luxury of beating up on the Giants, with a 10-1 record. That was until last week, when the decrepit Giants swept the Rockies.

 

The façade of excellence ended the week before, actually. The Mark Reynolds renaissance and the consistency of Blackmon and Arenado kept the team afloat, but after losing their last two series to the D Backs and being swept by the Dodgers, the Rockies undisputable deficiencies have come to light. Their run has stopped, mainly because said run was unsustainable. The Rockies are 11-4 in one run games. Although their bullpen has been effective, this is a sign of some luck. For perspective, the Dodgers are 8-9 in one run games despite being arguably the best team in baseball. Moreover, the Rockies had the 4th best record in baseball before this rough stretch. However, if you look deeper, they had the 7th best run differential, a sign of unsustainability.

 

Speaking of unsustainability, let’s talk a bit about these rookie pitchers.  Kyle Freeland threw a career high 162 innings last year in AA and AAA, he is at 93.2 already. He sure won’t be giving the team 7+ innings of 2 run ball in September. Antonio Senzatela threw a career high 154 innings in 2015 at Class A Advanced (nowhere near the majors) and in 2016 he was riddled with a shoulder injury. The expectation for him to throw 150+ innings of sub 4 ERA ball is absurd. Tyler Chatwood threw a career high 158 innings with the Rockies last year and was solid, posting a 2-win season. This year, however, his HR/FB % is up more than 12 percentage points. Their upstart rotation is showing signs of slowing down, posting a 5.11 ERA over the last 30 days (7th worst in baseball over that time), and a 6.75 ERA the last 14 days (by far the worst).

 

When the casual fan hears the Rockies are winning games, their mind immediately turns to hitting. The Rockies must be mashing, right? Right?! No. In fact, the last 30 days, the team has produced a putrid wRC+ of 77, tied with the Phillies for last in baseball over that time. And over the past two weeks, they have a wRC+ of 46! Trevor Story cannot regain the phenom status, hitting only 11 home runs so far this season while striking out 34.4 % of the time, by far the most among shortstops. Pitchers have clearly adjusted to him and despite his elevation in launch angle, he is slugging behind “defensive” shortstops such as Orlando Arcia, Andrelton Simmons and Tim Beckham. His 71WRC+ is 16th worst in baseball.  Ian Desmond isn’t living up to his $70 million contract, walking only 3.8 % of the time and striking out 25% of the time. He is on a hot streak, but he and Carlos Gonzalez still have a wOBA under .305, putting them next to names such as Buxton, Schwarber and Hamilton. Let’s not get into Gonzalez. To put it simply, CarGo is CarGoing through something bad.

 

 

Let’s look at the Rockies in a historical context. For the year, the Rockies have the worst wRC+ in baseball at 78. Since 2000, only 3 teams have ever made the postseason with a wRC+ 90 or lower. The 2007 Cubs, 2005 Astros, and 2001 Braves. If we go team by team, it’s clear that these teams had elite pitching and/or defense to carry the offense. The Cubs had the 2nd highest UZR in the league, 5th most valuable bullpen by WAR, and produced the weakest contact among all starting staffs in the league. Consequently, they sported the lowest BABIP in the league by 8 percentage points. The Astros had one of the greatest rotations since the turn of the century. Their big three of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Roy Oswalt created the 2nd most valuable rotation by WAR. All three hurlers had sub 3 ERA’s, with Clemens at a miniscule 1.87. And subtracting their defense, the staff had the best xFIP- in the league. The Braves also had a great rotation. They had 3 pitchers over 219 innings pitched with names like Maddux and Glavine spearheading the rotation to the 4th best WAR. These teams all made the playoffs with a wRC+ above 88, and quite frankly, the Rox don’t have any Clemens walking through the clubhouse. Given, all these teams played in the one wild card team era. Still, the Rockies are nowhere near these teams.

 

 

The Dodgers, Nationals and Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere. Once the Cubs figure things out, they will handle the Central. That leaves one wild card spot open. Hopefully the following week can put the Rockies back into legitimacy, as they play the Reds and the White Sox at home. If not, the Rockies will be the official overachievers of 2017 and they will hear the Coors Field narrative all of March 2018.

 

Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Chad Kuhl is Throwing Heat

On the surface, Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl appears to be having a disappointing season. However, there is more to it than just that.

Generally speaking, a slash line (ERA/FIP/xFIP/SIERA) of 5.58/4.28/4.77/4.80 isn’t very encouraging. These are the numbers that Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl has put up to date this season through 69.1 innings. Last year, he threw 70.2 MLB innings, so we have comparable sample sizes. Yet, he seemingly hasn’t improved upon last years numbers. Yes, the strikeouts are up, from a 17.6% K-rate to a 19% this year. However, the walk rate is also up (6.6% to 9%), the ground balls are down (44.3% to 41.8%), and the home run rate has risen accordingly (0.89 HR/9 to 1.04). What, you may be wondering, do I see in this guy?

Check out his plate discipline stats.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact%
2016 26.40% 68.80% 45.00% 65.70%
2017 30.50% 65.90% 46.40% 57.40%
Season Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2016 87.50% 80.30% 43.90% 57.10% 8.90%
2017 85.30% 75.20% 45.00% 59.40% 11.40%

Improvements across the board. His chase rate has gone up while his in-zone swing rate has gone down. Hitters are making far less contact on pitches out of the zone, and even a bit less on pitches within the zone. This explains the increase in strikeouts. The walks shouldn’t be increasing, unless hitters are really going much deeper into counts, since they are making less contact. Nonetheless, this should change if Kuhl keeps things the same, because he’s throwing in the zone more often and getting more swings outside of the zone. Of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year, Kuhl’s chase rate ranks 43rd, his in-zone swing rate is tied for 48th lowest, his z-swing minus o-swing ranks 37th, and most impressive, his swinging strike rate is tied for 26th. In fact, his swinging strike rate is the same as Yu Darvish–he even has a higher chase rate than him (30.5% and 29.3%), and Darvish has a superb 26.9% strikeout rate. The underlying statistics are optimistic, so if Kuhl keeps pitching this way, the strikeouts will increase and the walks will decrease. The bigger question is, what is the driving force behind these improvements?

According to PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs, Kuhl’s average 4-seam fastball velocity has jumped from 93 last year to 95.5 this year, touching 99. Contrary to what his name might suggest, Chad Kuhl is throwing heat. In fact, all of his pitches have seen an increase in velocity (and he’s added a curveball, but he’s only thrown 38 of them and they have been largely ineffective):

Season Pitch minVel maxVel Vel
2016 SI 83.3 96.5 92.7
2016 SL 81.6 89.5 86.6
2016 FA 87.4 96.1 93
2016 CH 81.6 88.3 85.1
2017 SI 88.6 99.5 94.1
2017 FA 90.2 99.4 95.5
2017 SL 77.2 91.8 88.5
2017 CH 81.7 90.7 88
2017 CU 79.7 86.4 82.7

The velocity increase has given Kuhl more confidence in his four-seamer, and his usage of the pitch has risen to 29% this year, up from a mere 10% last year. This explains part of why the ground ball rate is dropping–the uptick in four-seamer usage has caused a drop in sinker usage (down from 57% last year to 37% this year).

In addition, while his sinker has seen an increase in arm-side run (1.6 inches more), the ground ball rate is also dropping because the sinker has seen a decrease in drop (1.1 inches less). While the drop on his sinker has decreased, the rise on his four-seamer has increased. It is now above average, ranking 52nd out of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings as of morning June 27th. This is in part due to a slight change in vertical release point:Brooksbaseball-Chart-16.png

This year, Kuhl is throwing more over the top with all of his pitches. This graph shows that, for his sinker, he is on average releasing the ball about two inches higher. Now, Pitch Info (which powers this graph) says that Kuhl doesn’t throw a four-seamer at all, only sinkers, as opposed to PITCHf/x. Either way, at this point, Kuhl’s “sinkers” don’t sink very much. Using Pitch Info’s data, Kuhl’s sinker has the eighth worst drop amongst the 87 starters who have thrown at least 200 sinkers this year. In that same group, the ground ball rate on Kuhl’s sinker is also eighth worst. Coincidence? I think not. His overall ground ball rate of 41.8% this year is below average, ranking 78th-lowest of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year.

All of his pitches are generating more whiffs, looking at both Pitch Info and PITCHf/x. This is probably due to the improved velocity. Using Pitch Info’s data, his slider ranks 15th in whiffs per swing out of the 87 starters who have thrown 100 sliders this year (not to mention, it ranks 10th in average velocity), and his sinker ranks 17th out of the 87 starters who have thrown 200 sinkers this year. However, his changeup still gets whiffs at a below average rate: it ranks 71st out of the 92 starters who have thrown 100 changeups this year. Although the changeup has gotten more run this year, it too has lost vertical drop and the velocity gap between it and the fastball has closed a bit. Generally, changeups are used to sit down batters of the opposite handedness, because they have arm-side run. Kuhl, a righty, has struggled against lefties this year, as they have a .445 wOBA against him, while righties have a mere .286 wOBA. At the same time though, he has gotten more strikeouts against lefties (30) than righties (29), despite having faced fewer lefties (147) than righties (163). Also, I’m not too worried that Kuhl will have struggles against lefties in the long run because his sinker has great arm-side run.

The fact that Kuhl has a diminished ability to get ground balls doesn’t bode well for his old skill set, where he relied on his control and inducing weak contact, but with an increased penchant for strikeouts, backed by improving velocity, it shouldn’t matter that much. I would still take a flyer on him; the strikeouts, walks, and platoon splits should improve, along with his ERA.

Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!