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Just a Sophomore Slump - Third-year Players Ready to Rebound


The 2017 NFL rookie class has done well to give fantasy owners plenty to think about after just two seasons in the league. Here is a short list of some of the offensive players drafted in 2017 who can reasonably be expected to go within the first three or four rounds of 2019 fantasy drafts: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, Marlon Mack, Joe Mixon, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Patrick Mahomes and George Kittle.

Any one of the above-mentioned players has a case for being a top-10 pick at his respective position; in some cases top-five, in others top-one. And that's to say nothing of several players who will either go later in the draft but still provide value (Kenny Golladay, anyone?), or who could be drafted early but were excluded from the above list on account of the fact that I plan to discuss them in-depth below.

With so many standouts from this draft class staking their claim to the spotlight, it can be easy to forget about the youngsters who haven't performed as well. There were a handful of 2017 rookies who arrived ceremoniously on the scene during their first season, but for one reason or another could not put forth a repeat performance in year two. The important thing for us as fantasy owners is not to completely write these players off; they're all still very young with plenty of potential for success in front of them. With that, here are some members of the 2017 rookie class who are poised for a bounce-back in their junior NFL seasons.

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Evan Engram (TE, NYG)

In the interest of total transparency, we begin with a player I previously suggested exercising caution with in future drafts. Evan Engram appeared as a "Faller" in my NFC East Risers/Fallers discussion back in early February, so it may come as a surprise to see him listed here as a potential bounce-back candidate.

Well, there was one very simple reason why I worried about Engram's future production with the Giants, and that "reason" will be catching passes from Baker Mayfield next year instead of from Eli Manning. Between spending a chunk of time on the shelf and sharing a field with Odell Beckham Jr., Evan Engram saw a slight down-tick in his overall numbers in 2018. This was, of course, after a promising rookie campaign in which Beckham missed all but four games.

This feels tantamount to informing you that the sky is blue, but when one of the game's best wide receivers hasn't been on the field, Engram has had more success individually in the Giants' offense. In the 26 NFL games for which Engram has suited up, he has played with Beckham in 11 of them. Thanks to the incredibly helpful Game Splits App from Rotoviz.com, here are some of his per-game stats with and without Beckham:

With: 3.45 receptions, 0.27 TD, 5.64 targets, 37.55 yards

Without: 4.73 receptions, 0.4 TD, 7.8 targets, 59.07 yards

That's a relevant increase in everything but touchdowns, but here's an expansion on that as well, courtesy of Pro Football Reference: in 2018, Beckham was targeted in the red zone 18 times to Engram's seven. For his career, however, Engram has been targeted 18 times in the red zone, hauling in 11 of those for nine total touchdowns. That's a pretty solid scoring-position output (in an admittedly small sample size), and now without Beckham in the fold, Engram figures to reemerge as the primary red zone threat.

I'm concerned about whether or not longtime possession receiver Golden Tate puts a dent in Engram's numbers, and elite pass-catching back Saquon Barkley is going to continue being utilized as such. That said, Engram is the biggest, strongest option in New York's passing game, and he could be looking at a true breakout in 2019.

 

Dalvin Cook (RB, MIN)

If you drafted Dalvin Cook in the first two rounds in 2018, there's a good chance that decision alone wound up costing you a winning fantasy record. I count myself among those afflicted by his rough second season. That said, Cook is one of the players I alluded to above: a guy who figures to go within the first three rounds yet again in 2019.

Here's the encouraging part of Cook's 2018 output: following a 16-carry, 40-yard showing in Week 1, the Vikings running back didn't receive more than 10 carries again until a Week 13 matchup with Seattle. From the Seattle game on, he averaged 14.75 attempts with 303 total yards on 5.14 yards per carry. That's a pretty strong finish to an otherwise down year in which, by the way, he also missed all of October. It's also a four-game span very similar to the four games he began his career with in 2017: 74 carries, 354 yards, 4.8 yards per carry.

Cook will enter the 2019 season nearly two full calendar years removed from the knee surgery that ended his upstart rookie campaign. He wouldn't be the first running back to remind us all what he's capable of following a serious injury, and we shouldn't allow last year to blind us to that possibility. If his final few performances of 2018 are a premonition of what to expect in year three, he'll be well worth a late second or early third-round draft pick.

 

Aaron Jones (RB, GB)

Sticking in the NFC North, we'll now discuss a player with arguably the most frustrating usage pattern in any NFL backfield in 2018. Aaron Jones definitely didn't do himself any favors by getting suspended to start the season, but that doesn't exonerate Green Bay's play-callers from blame for massively under-utilizing him through his first four games.

From Weeks 3 through 6, Jones averaged just eight rushing attempts per game to the tune of 5.88 yards per carry. Meanwhile, during that same span (per Pro Football Reference), Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery were permitted to cut into his workload with 11.25 combined carries per game and 3.98 combined yards per attempt. These aren't markedly different numbers, but considering Jones pretty clearly seemed to be the best option, why the relatively even distribution? Why the inexplicable reluctance to feed the best running back on the team in an offense desperately in need of some balance?

Jones finally began to consistently see double-digit rushing attempts in Week 7, and he never looked back. From Weeks 7 through 13, he averaged 13.86 carries, 76 yards, and 5.48 yards per carry. Moreover, he was targeted 29 times in the passing game during this seven-week stretch, and he hauled in 22 of those. He also went on a nice little touchdown streak for good measure, crossing the goal line at least once in each game from Weeks 9 through 13.

He suffered an injury in December that ended his season, but that mid-year spurt can't be ignored when preparing for 2019 drafts. With a new head coach in town (Matt LaFleur) who will have "get along with Aaron Rodgers better than my predecessor did" at the very top of his list of priorities, it won't take until the Packers' seventh game of the season for Jones to start seeing the opportunities he deserves. Like Cook, Jones will likely be off the board by the fourth round this summer.

It's also worth noting that an exceptional season out of Jones wouldn't technically qualify as a third-year rebound, as he only received 81 total carries in his rookie year. That said, 62 of those carries came in a four-week span, and he averaged nearly 5.6 yards per attempt on them. We'll just have to chalk up his rather puzzling workload thus far to questionable decision making.

 

Leonard Fournette (RB, JAX)

I feel like I should write this portion of our discussion in the safety of a bomb shelter, because the potential fallout from being wrong about Leonard Fournette will be more than enough to annihilate the 2019 fantasy hopes of many an owner. Fournette's second season was so disastrous that not only did he miss half of Jacksonville's games, but there were multiple occasions on which you were waiting until the last possible minute to learn whether or not he would suit up. If you managed to somehow survive Fournette's 2018 campaign and reach your fantasy playoffs, you deserve some type of informal GM of the Year award in your league.

All the air raid sirens and red flags aside, I'm not ready to give up on the former Bayou Bengal just yet. There are, after all, at least a few encouraging numbers that point toward a rebound in his third season.

For starters, even in a season in which he played in only eight games and everything under the sun went wrong for the Jaguars, Fournette scored five rushing touchdowns. This is thanks almost entirely to his usage near the goal line, where he received 71.4 percent of Jacksonville's carries inside the five-yard-line for the entire season. Per Pro Football Reference, that percentage of a team's carries with that field position was good for seventh-highest in the NFL. There's something to be said for toting an overwhelming majority of your team's goal-line rushing attempts despite not even playing for half the year.

That leads us to our next observation, which is that Fournette somehow also led the team in overall carries with 133; 29 more than T.J. Yeldon, who appeared in 14 games. If nothing else, this is a clear indication that the Jaguars weren't comfortable committing to the ground attack without Fournette, resulting in a misguided reliance on a passing game led by Blake Bortles.

Let's once again consult the Game Splits App from Rotoviz.com to examine Bortles' patterns with and without his first-string running back in 2018:

With (six games): 16.67 completions, 26 ATT, 0.67 INT, 192.33 yards

Without (seven games): 20.43 completions, 35.29 ATT, 1 INT, 222.43 yards

These splits tell us that when Fournette was available, he was quite obviously the focal point of Jacksonville's offense. So before we go penciling him in as the next one-year flash in the pan, let's take a step back and consider that if he had simply managed to stay on the field last season, we'd likely have a very different outlook on his potential for 2019. Volume is king, and Fournette got plenty of it in eight games.

Taking into account his health concerns and pedestrian career 3.7 yards per carry average, perhaps his ceiling is that of a mid-tier, touchdown-dependent RB2. Still, with Bortles gone and the relatively less turnover-prone Nick Foles set to take over under center; a defense that was still deceptively good despite an otherwise catastrophic 2018; and a clear stranglehold on goal-line opportunities, that ceiling is well within reach for Fournette. Again, he just needs to be out there.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go reinforce the perimeter of my underground bunker.

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