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NFC East Risers/Fallers - 2018 Season Review


Throughout the course of any fantasy football season, it's inevitable that we're going to be surprised by the performances of certain players, both good and bad.

Many highly-drafted players will fall short of expectations, while plenty of late-round flyers and waiver wire acquisitions will show up to save the day. It's important to take note of these developments throughout the year and to file them away for next season.

For that reason, we will examine the biggest risers and fallers from each NFL division. We'll begin our coverage with the NFC East.

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Quick Quiz

To highlight why it's important, I present to you the following blind wide receiver comparison from the 2018 season:

Player A - 53 receptions, 76 targets, 725 yards, six touchdowns
Player B - 102 receptions, 149 targets, 1,021 yards, nine touchdowns

This is a no-brainer when deciding which player you'd rather have in 2019, right? Player B outperformed Player A in all the fantasy-relevant statistical categories. Well, what if I told you that Player B is Stefon Diggs over the full season, and Player A is Amari Cooper in only the nine games he played with the Dallas Cowboys? Maybe you're still rolling with Diggs, but the choice isn't quite as obvious anymore, is it? Cooper was left for dead in Oakland, sworn off by many a fantasy owner who'd spent an early pick on him. He turned around his season, and quite possibly his career, after landing in Dallas.

The point here is that it's easy to get complacent when assessing a player's value, to look at overall numbers instead of paying attention to the trends that might be causing them. We can't get any more evidence on these trends until next season starts. Most of the rankings, research, and analysis you study heading into the 2019 draft season will take into account free agency, trades, coaching changes and perceived success or failure at the NFL Draft. These things have yet to transpire, so before we turn our attention solely to the future, let's first take a look back at the 2018 season to see what we can learn.

 

Dallas Cowboys

Riser - Dak Prescott, QB

We've already discussed Amari Cooper's reemergence as a WR1, so now let's examine the other primary beneficiary of his arrival in Dallas: quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott posted career highs in completions and passing yards in 2018, but before his favorite target put on a Cowboys uniform, his season looked like it would be memorable for bad reasons.

In the seven games before Cooper's debut, Prescott threw for fewer than 200 yards four times and was averaging just over one touchdown pass per game. Over the team's final nine contests (with Cooper in the fold), he threw for 14 touchdowns and averaged 274 passing yards per game.

Just for good measure, here's a fluky yet intriguing stat: in the seven games without Cooper, Prescott rushed 40 times for 236 yards and two touchdowns. In the final nine, he rushed 35 times for 69 total yards and four touchdowns. This should tell us two things: Prescott felt the need to scramble more early on due to an underwhelming corps of receiving targets, but in the second half of the season, the threat of the passing attack allowed him to cruise for short-yardage touchdowns in the red zone. He should be viewed as a bottom-tier QB1 heading into 2019, assuming the Cowboys find a suitable replacement for Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup continues to develop into a reliable starter.

Faller - The Tight End Position at large

Among the most obvious observations one could make watching the Cowboys in 2018 was that Jason Witten had retired. This proved to be a considerable detriment to Dak Prescott and the passing game as a whole, as the team very much felt the absence of its cornerstone "safety net." In his wake, Witten left behind a collection of tight ends like Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim and Dalton Schultz.

The quartet combined for 68 receptions, 710 yards and four touchdowns. For reference, Witten averaged 66 catches, 616.5 yards and four touchdowns by himself in his two seasons with Prescott as the Cowboys quarterback. As it turns out, the fantasy community missed Witten's PPR-friendly numbers every bit as much as his former teammates. Whatever we thought might happen once the Hall-of-Famer rode off into the sunset, any hope of someone stepping in to fill his shoes immediately was not met favorably.

Perhaps Jarwin emerges as the favorite to lead the pack in 2019 based on his late-season surge, but as it stands now we are likely looking elsewhere in our draft preparations, even at such a hit-or-miss position.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Riser - Josh Adams, RB

Eagles rookie Josh Adams was involved in the offense sparingly for most of the season, but a 53-yard outing complete with a touchdown at New Orleans in Week 11 earned him a larger workload for the home stretch. From Week 12 on he averaged 14 carries per game, though he only capitalized to the tune of 304 yards and two touchdowns.

While this is by no means a staggering increase in production once given the opportunities, it's worth noting that Adams' 304 rushing yards in six games were higher than the season totals of every Eagles running back not named Wendell Smallwood and that his 4.3 yards per carry were the highest on the team. Inconsistency and injuries plagued the Eagles backfield in 2018, and to make matters worse, Jay Ajayi is set to become a free agent this winter.

Philadelphia will want to shore up its revolving door of running backs in 2019, and it stands to reason that the young man who paced them in carries and rushing yards in 2018 will get the first crack at the number-one role next year.

Faller - Golden Tate, WR

In his four seasons with the Detroit Lions, Golden Tate averaged 93 receptions for 1,056 yards and 4.75 touchdowns. Touchdowns have never been the category from which Tate's value resulted, but on a per-game basis, that four-year stint in Detroit equated to an average of 5.8 receptions and 66 yards per game, making him a reliable staple in PPR lineups.

In his first seven games of 2018, still with the Lions, he averaged 6.3 catches for 74 yards, and hauled in three touchdowns. Then he was traded mid-season to Philly, where he inexplicably averaged fewer than four receptions for under 35 yards per contest. He scored one touchdown.

There are two schools of thought here as we figure out how to value Tate going into the 2019 season, the first of which is that he was simply misused in Philadelphia. That's almost undoubtedly true, as it seems unfathomable that a mediocre team like the Lions could be viewed as some sort of wideout whisperer. The second school of thought is that even considering Tate's reliability, it does in fact matter where he ends up next season. There are only a handful of wide receivers who are immune to their surroundings and will produce no matter what team they play for (see Hopkins, DeAndre).

The impending free agent Tate, a longtime possession receiver, is not one of them. He must find a suitor with the ability to get the best out of him, or else this forgettable stay in Philadelphia might develop into a trend.

 

Washington Redskins

Riser - Redskins D/ST

The Washington Redskins fell apart at the seams after a 6-3 start, dropping six of their final seven games and missing the playoffs. The lone bright spot for much of this forgettable season was Washington's defense, which carried the team through much of the schedule until Alex Smith's season-ending injury in Week 11 began a domino effect that sent their postseason hopes spiraling by the wayside.

Even with Smith at the helm, the Redskins were an incredibly one-dimensional team on offense, relying almost entirely on the run. The difference between Smith and the multitude of quarterbacks that followed him, however, is that he was serviceable enough to keep the offense going without having to beat his opponents through the air.

Prior to his injury in Week 11, the Redskins allowed just two opposing offenses to score more than 21 points against them. In the six games after he left the lineup, Washington's defense gave up nearly 25 points per game the rest of the way. What this should tell us is that when the Redskins defensive unit wasn't being sold up the river by an incompetent offense, they were effective at putting the clamps down on their opponents.

With that in mind, we should keep an eye on two things heading into 2019: the presumed return of running back Derrius Guice, who missed his rookie season due to injury, and what the Redskins decide to do at quarterback given the uncertain future of Smith. If the Redskins adequately address their concerns under center and Guice is good to go for Week 1, Washington's defense should once again be a reliable fantasy unit.

Faller - Jordan Reed, TE

For years, the knock on Jordan Reed was that he couldn't stay on the field. He had all the talent in the world, and when he was active he produced, but injuries forced him to miss time all too often. Finally, in 2018 Reed put together what was almost a full season before a Week 14 injury caused him to miss the team's final three games. The 13 games he did play in amounted to 54 catches for 558 yards and two touchdowns. That's a per-game average of four receptions for 43 yards, rendering him unreliable even in PPR formats. What truly ruined his fantasy output for 2018, however, was the lack of touchdowns.

From 2015-17, with Kirk Cousins at the helm for Washington, Reed averaged 60 receptions for 616 yards per season and found the end zone 19 total times despite playing in just 32 of a possible 48 games. This includes the most markedly injury-shortened season of his career (2017), in which he only appeared in six contests.

Reed's 2018 campaign is among the most confounding in the fantasy universe, as he's long been regarded as one of the most surefire tight ends in the game when healthy. That said, it likely boils down to the drop-off in talent the Redskins experienced at quarterback when they let Cousins go and traded for Smith. Cousins is in Minnesota for the long haul, Smith's future is uncertain after his brutal injury, and good quarterbacks don't grow on trees. Washington won't have a particularly easy time finding an immediate answer here, and Reed may no longer be the top-tier fantasy tight end we once grew accustomed to as a result.

 

New York Giants

Riser - Saquon Barkley, RB

I can already hear you asking, "How can a consensus first-round fantasy pick be considered a Riser?" That's a fair question, so just bear with me. Yes, Saquon Barkley was highly regarded coming out of college and was valued as a first-round pick in 2018 fantasy drafts. That said, like any rookie he did not come into the NFL without his fair share of questions. Would he be able to overcome the Giants' abysmal offensive line? Was he destined for some growing pains against the speed and athleticism of NFL defenses? Then, of course: Would his preseason hamstring injury linger into the regular season?

Well, the reason Barkley is listed here as a Riser is that he answered all of those questions and left no doubt in the process. Barkley finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, behind only Ezekiel Elliott, and averaged five yards per carry with 11 touchdowns. That'd be impressive enough all on its own, but then he went ahead and recorded 91 catches for 721 yards and four more touchdowns. He finished 13th in the entire league, at all positions, in receptions. As a rookie. He trailed only Christian McCaffrey among running backs.

I consider Barkley a Riser because he went from consensus mid-to-late first-round pick with a question mark or two in 2018, to a no-doubt top-four pick in 2019 fantasy drafts. Here is the comprehensive list of players I believe you could make the argument for drafting before Barkley in 2019 PPR leagues: Elliott, McCaffrey and Todd Gurley. And if you took him before any of those three? You'd get no argument out of me.

Faller - Evan Engram, TE

Here is the good news regarding Evan Engram's injury-plagued 2018 sophomore season: From Weeks 14-17, without Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup, Engram averaged 5.5 receptions for 80 yards and scored one total touchdown. He saw an average of just under eight targets per contest during this time frame. The bad news? In the previous seven games, with Beckham on the field, he averaged 3.2 catches for 36.7 yards and scored two total touchdowns.

If this sounds familiar, it's because Engram's rookie campaign followed a similar pattern. Beckham missed all but four games in 2017, and Engram thrived in an otherwise lost Giants season. After Beckham was ruled out for the year, Engram averaged 4.5 catches, 8.1 targets and 52.2 yards per game, and found the end zone five total times in the process. In the four games in which Beckham played, he averaged under four receptions, under eight targets, 39 yards and scored one touchdown.

It may seem preposterous that an NFL offense can't consistently sustain two high-quality pass-catchers, but so far the trend has been that Engram takes a back seat to his superstar teammate when they are on the field together. Engram had top-tier tight end upside heading into 2018 fantasy drafts but fell outside the top 12 in ESPN standard PPR scoring. He probably enters 2019 ranked somewhere between the 6-10 range, but it's worth remembering when his value has been at its highest during the early stages of his young career.

Stay tuned for more Riser/Faller articles from RotoBaller, as our writers break down each division in the NFL.

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