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AFC East :: 2019 Preview!

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Buffalo Bills

We made a lot of money down the stretch last year hammering the Bills’ offense. Maybe it’s a geographical thing, but people seem to not know that this offense — The Great Backyard Offense — is even a thing.

During the time Josh Allen missed with an elbow injury last year, he focused on watching film, working closely with the coaches, and adjusting his approach — and down the stretch, this yielded elite fantasy results in four of six weeks (with the two down weeks fairly easy to see coming from our end). Allen was a “first read, then improvise” quarterback down the stretch — scrambling around if his first read was covered, and either launching the ball downfield or taking off running. He became the first quarterback in history to post back-to-back 100-yard rushing games (and it would have been three straight if not for a kneel-down that cost him a yard), and his deep ball to Robert Foster made the undrafted receiver out of Alabama a late-season fantasy star.

It takes time to rein in a gunslinger mentality

This offseason, the Bills have been working with Allen to stay in the pocket longer, and to take the checkdown when the downfield looks aren’t there. It takes time to rein in a gunslinger mentality, however, and we should see Allen continue to attack with a certain level of ferocity. The efficiency isn’t always pretty, but there will be some big games here throughout the year.

Part of the beauty of this offense is its design, which deserves more credit than it gets (Brian Daboll, who has worked under Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, and Nick Saban, has a lot of fun with motion and misdirection). The execution is often sloppy, and Daboll’s play sequencing needs a lot of work; but the concepts are there — and Daboll’s play sequencing issues tend to create the second-and-long and third-and-long situations that push Allen to tap into his aggressiveness.

Another part of the beauty of this offense is the fact that they still don’t have a major threat at tight end, and — to date — Allen has shown a lack of willingness to check down to the running backs, leaving the wideouts with a heavy dose of reliable targets.

John Brown has taken over the Robert Foster role and has been thriving in camp. His role will be primarily downfield looks designed to put strain on the defense. Zay Jones has a long way to go before he lives up to his draft status, but he continues to improve off his dismal rookie year. He’ll work the intermediate area of the field and will likely remain inconsistent, but volume will often be in his favor. Cole Beasley will have more upside than he did in Dallas — though time will tell if that translates into any actual fantasy value. Beasley felt that Jason Garrett misused him in Dallas (would that surprise you if it proves to be true?), and he and Daboll have worked together this summer to tailor Beasley’s routes to what he does best, making him a dark horse to emerge as a low-cost “floor with touchdown-driven ceiling” play early in the year.

The run game may be a three-way timeshare in the early going. The Bills signed Frank Gore this offseason and almost surely plan to give him a few touches each game. LeSean McCoy is still around, and Devin Singletary has impressed in camp and almost certainly earned an early-season role. The Bills have revamped their offensive line in the hopes of generating better run production, and their run game schedule has gone from being the toughest in the league last year to one of the easiest; though the likely timeshare and a rash of camp injuries on the offensive line will make this unit difficult to trust early in the year. The best case for fantasy would be for Singletary to eventually take over the lead job and be locked into 16+ touches each week, though we’ll have to wait for that. Until that happens, this backfield is likely to be -EV, with only unpredictable production spikes providing any sort of value, and with week-winning scores unlikely to be available for the taking.


Miami Dolphins

The most appropriate starting point in our exploration of the Dolphins is to point out that this is an offense we will rarely be targeting in DFS, as the Dolphins have one of the worst offensive lines in football, a projected timeshare at running back (with Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage splitting time on a team with below-average scoring opportunities), and a defense that is difficult to attack through the air but easy to attack on the ground (a poor setup for the sort of game flow that could generate explosive DFS production). Two of the biggest mistakes we see people make in daily fantasy football are:

A) targeting low-floor “miracle plays” in the hopes of catching an anomaly

B) targeting plays that are all floor and no week-winning ceiling

Will there be a few big games that emerge from the Dolphins this year? Absolutely! But in nearly all matchups this year (and we should note: the Dolphins’ schedule is one of the toughest in the league), their offensive pieces will fall into one of the two categories above: where you would be rostering them and hoping for a miracle, or rostering them for floor with no pursuit of ceiling.

With that said, however: many of you are not only DFS players, but are also football fans; and as such, it’s interesting to dig into the Dolphins to get a feel for their team. (And anyway; shouldn’t you make sure you know what your team is up against when the Dolphins are on the other side of a squad you like?)

Adam Gase is out in Miami, and Brian Flores is in. We should expect Flores to play a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense that leans on the strong linebackers and secondary this defense has, while minimizing the weakness of this team’s pass rushing unit. With this approach, the Dolphins should be able to keep most games fairly close — which will take pressure off their offense to “have to be” aggressive.

…there is a certain level of creativity and attention-to-detail that we can expect

Flores has brought offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea with him from the Patriots, where O’Shea designed the Patriots’ red zone offense for the last several years. While it seems from the outside that there is plenty that Bill Belichick does not share with his assistants (including, almost certainly, the ways in which he uses analytics), there is a certain level of creativity and attention-to-detail that we can expect from a coach who has been under Belichick for 10 years, and there is a certain level of “figuring out ways to win with what you have.” The Dolphins’ strengths on defense will likely lead to this offense playing things safe the majority of the time, and the lack of talent on the offensive line may also push the Dolphins to focus on a ball-out-quick passing attack, rather than trying to “win ugly” in the old-school way of just running up the gut. Analytically, this would obviously be the sound approach with this offensive (ha ha) roster; and if we do see the Dolphins focusing on the short passing game early in the year — with concepts similar to those used by the Patriots — we could find that there are certain spots on the schedule where the speed of Albert Wilson and Kenny Stills will have high enough blowup potential to be worth chasing in large-field tourneys. We will, of course, be keeping an eye on that early in the year to see if there is an edge to be found here. (Of course, we can assume that the field will not be on the Dolphins’ offense if those situations arise!)


New England Patriots

The Patriots have a long history of successfully building their offense around the players they have. With Rob Gronkowski retired (for now?), I still see writers saying, “Who will fill the Gronk role in this offense?” Well…there is no “Gronk role.” That role existed because Gronk existed.

So who exists now on the Patriots? For one: a lot of running back depth. Last year, only the 49ers ran more plays out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), and no team targeted their running backs more. In 2019, we should see the Patriots featuring these backs in new, creative ways, playing to the strengths that James White, Sony Michel, and (to a lesser extent) Burkhead/Harris bring to the table. Michel has drawn praise for his work in the pass game this offseason and should see, at worst, a slightly expanded role in that area (with room for more if he shows he can handle the Patriots’ complicated route concepts in game settings — a potential boost to his fantasy value after he caught only seven passes all of last year), and while White/Michel will likely remain up-and-down fantasy performers, each will have some big weeks along the way. (We often run into situations throughout the season in which one or the other clearly stands out as the preferred play due to matchup and/or game flow expectations, making each a worthwhile tourney play to keep on speed-dial.) It somehow went largely overlooked last year, but this was the seventh run-heaviest team in football, as the Patriots continue to build this roster around defense and the run game in preparation for life after Brady.

The New England passing attack will continue to focus on crisp, short-area precision — a setup in which Julian Edelman will continue to thrive. It is worth noting that the Patriots have followed the analytics to increase their red zone scoring upside — turning to the run when they get close, rather than following the less efficient “pass the ball in” method. Given that Edelman almost always requires a touchdown in order to provide any serious ceiling (and given that his touchdowns rarely come on long plays), he’ll rarely be a guy we can comfortably target for ceiling; but his floor should be steady all year.

“Josh Gordon FOMO” is also a very real thing

There is potential for the Josh Gordon good-times-fantasy-memory-hype-train to pick up more momentum than it should before the season kicks off — and so, it’s worth noting that while Gordon’s average stat line last season (3.6 receptions for 63.5 yards in 11 games with the Patriots) was solid, his “upside” usage was spotty. Gordon had only four targets inside the 10, with only two games north of 100 yards and no games north of five receptions. Gordon’s talent is more than theoretical, and there is a chance that in his second year with Brady, things click in a big way — especially without Gronk available to throw to. But “Josh Gordon FOMO” is also a very real thing, and it has led to his ownership levels regularly outranking his likeliest range of production. On a team that produces extremely consistent offensive production, but that spreads the ball around enough for spiked weeks to often be a guessing game, we’ll be keeping a close eye on this situation throughout the early portions of the year to see where not only the production, but also the usage is landing.

Working in Gordon’s favor, of course, is a lack of depth behind the running backs and these top two wide receivers. Phillip Dorsett will likely start in three-wide sets early in the season, but it also seems likely that the Patriots will mix in first-rounder N’Keal Harry and training camp superstar Jakobi Meyers; and with so much 21 personnel for the Pats, the third wide receiver job is a truly part-time role in this offense to begin with, leaving this spot as merely a hope-and-pray play early in the year. Tight end is also a black hole for the Patriots in the early going, with Ben Watson on suspension until Week 5, and with no other tight ends on this roster stepping up in camp.

One way or another, the Patriots will find a way to put up points most weeks. This team is unpredictable enough (and spreads the ball around enough) that this won’t always translate to week-winning fantasy value; but as always, there will be some spots and situations to watch for on this team throughout the year.


New York Jets

There has been a false narrative circulating in fantasy circles this offseason that Adam Gase, at his core, wants to play slow and win ugly. I get it. With his big eyes, his salty demeanor, and his not-friendly-to-fantasy offenses in Miami, Gase is an easy target for ridicule. But this is a guy who helped build a winning offense around Tim Tebow, built a completely different offense around Peyton Manning, built a completely different — John Fox friendly — offense around Jay Cutler in Chicago, and somehow found a way to a 10-win season with Ryan Tannehill under center and one of the worst rosters in football. We may find that Gase doesn’t have the skills to run a team; but he is a sharper mind than the fantasy community gives him credit for, and my money is on Gase having a solid run with this Jets team and their budding franchise quarterback.

…the Jets want to go uptempo this year and put pressure on opponents

While Gase hasn’t given much away, there have been indications in camp that the Jets want to go uptempo this year and put pressure on opponents. Sam Darnold continues to look like a future star, and his weapons this year — with Le’Veon Bell, Ty Montgomery, and Jamison Crowder joining Robby Anderson and a potentially ascendant Chris Herndon — look far better than they did a year ago.

Anderson has been used all over the field in camp, which may prove to give him a strong weekly floor to go with his monster weekly ceiling. Crowder has immediately become a favorite target for Darnold, with the two seemingly in sync from day one. And when Herndon returns from suspension, he’ll have a chance to develop into a legitimate difference-maker up the seam. (Quincy Enunwa will provide a steady target as well — though his looks should rarely be schemed, and he’ll need to run into good fortune to put up the sort of fantasy score you “have to have.”)

Gase plans to use Montgomery all over the field, and we may see him develop into a steady low-end Flex with spiked-week potential.

As for Bell :: there is some wait-and-see here, as Bell’s unique running style is something the Jets’ lineman are still getting used to, and Bell is no longer in a scheme designed to maximize his production. A large chunk of his value in Pittsburgh hinged on his monster workloads, so the first couple weeks of the season will give us a much better gauge on what we can expect from Bell this year.

Bonus :: The Jets’ secondary is the weakest spot on their team — with average-at-best potential, and with disaster-waiting-to-happen potential as well. While Jamal Adams will help to erase tight ends, wideouts are likely to thrive against them once again (no team allowed more wide receiver receptions than the Jets last year, and only one team allowed more wide receiver yards). A strong, fast-paced offense with upside elements on the same team as a bad secondary creates ripe conditions for shootouts.

Bonus 2 :: The Jets will especially be a team to keep an eye on during the second half of the season, as their pass defense schedule becomes much easier down the stretch, and we may be able to enjoy lowered ownership and depressed salaries if the Jets struggle a bit in the first half.