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NFC East :: 2019 Preview!

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Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys are one of a handful of teams that have instituted a new offense this offseason, while showing very little of this offense in preseason games. After earning increased input on play designs throughout the 2018 season, Kellen Moore will be calling this offense this year. From an “offensive identity” standpoint, we should not expect a whole lot to change for Dallas, as this is still a team that will want to win by running the football, controlling the game, and forcing opponents to march the entire field against a defense designed to take away both wide receivers and the big play (only four teams allowed fewer yards to wide receivers last year, and only five teams allowed fewer pass plays of 20-plus yards). But while this team is unlikely to suddenly become an aggressive unit from a game philosophy standpoint, we can expect this team to show a lot more creativity in their looks, designs, and play calls – which will have a shot at increasing the efficiency of this team’s offensive plays, and increasing the value of this team’s players from a fantasy perspective. Although we have not seen much of this new offense on the field just yet, reports from camp have this unit showing a lot more pre-snap movement and creativity in an effort to scheme wide receivers open.

Not to imply that Kellen Moore is in the same class as Andy Reid

Last year, Amari Cooper averaged 5.7 yards after catch per reception, a full 2.0 yards higher than his xYAC/R. Only two receivers in the NFL outperformed their expected yards after catch by a higher margin, which would typically point to Cooper as a regression candidate, and as a player whose stats last year looked better than the reality. With this new offense in place, however, there is actually a strong likelihood that Cooper could see his yards after catch per reception rise simply due to better play design. Not to imply that Kellen Moore is in the same class as Andy Reid, but just to provide a point of reference: Amari had an expected yards after catch per reception last year of 3.7, while Sammy Watkins had an xYAC/R of 6.9, and Tyreek Hill sat at 5.2. JuJu Smith-Schuster also had a higher xYAC/R than Amari’s raw YAC/R, as did two separate Colts receivers (T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rodgers). Point being: with the after-catch skill set that Amari boasts, it isn’t crazy to think that he could finish in the same YAC/R range he finished in last year – leaving open a chance that he is still appropriately priced as we enter the season, rather than being a regression candidate. (Naturally, the first couple weeks of this season will tell us more about this offense, and will give us a better feel for where our expectations should stand.)

Given reports out of Cowboys training camp, we should also expect Michael Gallup to take a step forward this year. After showing consistent improvements throughout his rookie season, Gallup has shown serious flashes at camp this summer, and is expected to be a more heavily-schemed part of this offense – becoming another chess piece that can help open up the field for the other weapons on this team.

Jason Witten also returns this year, though he is likely to fill more of a “vulture” role than he is to provide any serious fantasy value; after all, with YAC monsters such as George Kittle (first in the entire NFL in YAC/R last year), Evan Engram (second in YAC/R), and Vance McDonald (third in YAC/R) available to choose from this year, we can probably do better from an upside perspective than old-legged, dad-running Witten. Early expectations should have Witten playing around 20 snaps per game, with yardage unlikely to pile up, and with the occasional touchdown making him more of a frustration for those of us who roster other pieces of this offense than a truly useful piece himself.

And of course, no discussion of this offense is complete without talking about its running game, as everything on this team is built off of that. If Ezekiel Elliott ends his holdout before the start of the season, he should immediately step into his workhorse role; and if Zeke misses any time, impressive rookie Tony Pollard should be able to fill in capably at the start of the year. While it is always difficult for a rookie back to step in and handle all of his responsibilities right away, Cowboys coaches have raved about Pollard’s work in the classroom this offseason, and it is perfectly fair to assume that he will be able to provide a good 80% of Zeke’s production right off the bat.

There is more we will learn about this offense as the first few weeks of the season unfold; but we do know this team has a fairly narrow distribution of touches, and we know that some of these weapons are elite enough to be worth keeping in mind at the front end of almost any week.

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Philadelphia Eagles

For as long as I have been playing NFL DFS, one of the edges I have looked to exploit is the public perception that you should always pair your quarterback with at least one of his pass catchers. When it comes down to it, any DFS rule that says you should “always” (or even “almost always”) do “X” is going to A) have an awful lot of truth to it, and B) also have some nuance that is unaccounted for by the blanket statement given. While everyone knows that the “standard exception” to the pair-your-quarterback rule is running quarterbacks, as it is not unheard of for a running quarterback to post a week-winning score without any of his pass catchers joining him, the layer that tends to go overlooked in this discussion – and that can sometimes provide us with an edge – is a quarterback on an offense that spreads the ball around.

This leads to a number of frustrations in DFS

Over the last couple years, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has become one of the best in the business at figuring out each week exactly which weapons of his can be best used to exploit the matchup his team will be facing. This leads to a number of frustrations in DFS, as Philadelphia has rotated running back workloads, shifted personnel groupings from one week to the next, and generally made it difficult to figure out most weeks where the volume on this team is likeliest to go. Through all that, however, we should keep in mind that this team – one of the strongest and most intelligent offensive units in the NFL – led the league in passing touchdowns in 2017, the last time Carson Wentz was fully healthy, with a full offseason available for him to prepare for the year. Wentz also added 299 rushing yards through 13 games in 2017, making him a weekly threat to post one of the top scores at the quarterback position, while often leaving standard-approach DFS rosters in a lurch, as most DFSers tend to either avoid Wentz because they don’t know who to pair him with, or to pair him with a pass catcher because “that’s what you’re supposed to do,” locking themselves into a lower point-per-dollar ceiling at these pass catcher positions than they could otherwise target.

In this regard, 2019 figures to be similar to what we have seen in the past. While the Eagles are one of the best shape-shifting offenses in the league – changing their look and their approach from week to week in order to account for opponent – one tenet that we see carry over for this team regardless of matchup is that they like to spread the ball around, keeping defenses on their toes, and consistently putting a ton of looks on film in order for future opponents to never know what to prepare for. It is for this exact reason that we have seen the majority of sharp season-long fantasy prognosticators ranking Zach Ertz a bit lower than his lofty draft slot, as this team, internally, was bothered by the fact that Wentz locked so heavily onto his favorite target last year. Alshon Jeffery should have his normal downfield, low-YAC role on the perimeter; Nelson Agholor has had a strong camp, with beat writers projecting a solid season for him this year; DeSean Jackson has been added to take the top off the defense and open up the underneath areas of the field (and not only has Wentz shown strong chemistry with Jackson this offseason, but also, Pederson has been working to get the ball into Jackson’s hands with wide receiver screens); the Eagles are incredibly excited about the development of Dallas Goedert, and Philly is projected to be one of the league leaders in 12 personnel this year in the hopes of elevating Goedert’s opportunities for targets; JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a potential superstar in the waiting, and will surely be mixed in for a few designed plays most weeks. And on top of all that, Philadelphia added Jordan Howard to the backfield in free agency, drafted impressive rookie Miles Sanders, and brought back ageless Darren Sproles. We should see Sanders eventually take over the bulk of the work on this team (if you have been reading the NFL Edge the last couple years, you know we have always been more cautious than most when it comes to the Philadelphia backfield; though it is fair to believe that part of the reason Philly has spread around backfield work so extensively is because they have not had a true feature back, and it’s not crazy to think that the Eagles could follow the blueprint that the Patriots followed over a decade ago with Corey Dillon, leaning toward a workhorse-style back in spite of a recent history of leaning away from that, as some players are just too good to keep off the field), and on top of all that, we should see Sproles mix in for a few designed plays of his own each week. With this offense likely to be among the highest-scoring teams in the league, we will almost certainly see ownership follow, and will almost certainly see persistently elevated prices as a result. And with this squad spreading the ball around so thoroughly, this is a team to be cautious with most weeks. But again: a quarterback doesn’t always have to be paired with a pass catcher. Sometimes, edges can be found in places where no one else is looking.

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New York Giants

The New York Giants enter the 2019 season with Eli Manning under center once again, all but guaranteeing another year of mediocrity, and of this team getting less than they should out of some of the most explosive offensive pieces in the NFL. That’s the bad news. The good news? Well…

Let’s start with this: the Giants traded Odell Beckham. The Giants signed Golden Tate, but he is suspended for the first four games of the season. The Giants have less depth at wide receiver than just about any other team in the league, but they have an above-average weapon in Sterling Shepard, one of the most exciting young pass-catching tight ends in Evan Engram, and perhaps the best running back in football in Saquon Barkley. The Giants also have a coach in Pat Shurmur who is willing to lean on his most talented and reliable pieces, even if that means ramping up to ridiculous levels of volume.

This team is absolutely, positively, 100% going to focus primarily on using its best weapons

To wit (and honestly, this is just downright stunning), there were only two games last year (two!) in which a wide receiver not named Beckham or Shepard managed to see more than four targets. This team is absolutely, positively, 100% going to focus primarily on using its best weapons (um…you know, with the exception of quarterback), which gives us the rare “bad team” that we can still have interest in most weeks.

We should expect Saquon Barkley to once again dominate backfield touches, and to be involved heavily in the pass game and near the goal line. We should expect this team to focus way, way too much on the short passing game, feeding consistent and reliable targets to Engram, Shepard, and (upon his return) Tate (with this team also expected to ramp up its usage of wide receiver screens in 2019). And although the inability of this team to go downfield takes away some of the upside we would ultimately like to target for our rosters, there is something to be said for reliable, consistent, high-floor usage; and frankly, NFL offenses – even bad offenses – run into points often enough that any players on a team with a distribution of touches this narrow is worth paying attention to most weeks. This is one of the simplest teams to break down this year, as we know where the volume is going to flow, and we are almost always able to get a feel for an opponent’s chances against this Giants defense, allowing us most weeks to comfortably predict game flow involving this team, and to comfortably get a handle on expected production as a result.

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Washington Redskins

With how little attention the Washington Redskins get in the fantasy community, it is worth looking at a few numbers before we dive into this team (hint: this is not a sneaky way of showing you that Washington deserves more attention than they receive, but rather, is a reinforcement of the realization that Washington doesn’t deserve much attention from us at all).

the entire identity of this team is wrapped up in the understanding that they have very little to offer on offense

Last year on offense, this team ranked 29th in points per game and 28th in yards per game. Only five teams notched fewer yards per drive than Washington, and only eight teams notched fewer points per drive. This team ranked 27th in drive success rate and 21st in pace of play. Washington also ranked dead last in situation neutral pace of play, as the entire identity of this team is wrapped up in the understanding that they have very little to offer on offense, and as such, their goal is to slow down games as much as they can, take as much pressure off their offense as they can, and allow their defense to keep games close with the hopes of figuring out a way to pull out a victory at the end.

This swings us over to Washington’s defense, where this team ranked a respectable 15th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed. Washington did rank all the way down at 25th in yards allowed per drive (and you wonder why Gruden thinks he needs to play slow…), while ranking 18th in points allowed per drive. Only six teams racked up more sacks than this defense last year, and only two teams allowed fewer receptions to wide receivers. (Meanwhile, only three teams allowed more rushing yards to running backs, and only two teams allowed more receiving yards to tight ends – a perfect illustration of how this team hopes to play: preventing the big-play as best they can, and hoping they get lucky enough down the stretch of each game to pull out a win.)

With Trent Williams missing from the offensive line, no major improvements in the wide receiver corps for this team, and Jay Gruden surely thinking more this year about posting a respectable enough record to save his job than about trying to win a Super Bowl (ha!) or building for the future (as, of course, this team desperately needs to do), we should expect the status quo from this team once again.

Case Keenum will start the year under center, though we will almost certainly see Dwayne Haskins make starts this year. Trey Quinn will man the slot for this team, providing what is actually expected to be a valuable real-life, on-the-field tool for this offense; though given how non-aggressive this offense is by nature, and how high Quinn’s volume would have to be in order for him to be a tournament-winning piece, it is likely that we will rarely find ourselves having major interest in him in fantasy (except, perhaps, as a solid salary saver who can guarantee some floor). On the perimeter, Washington is expected to deploy Paul Richardson and Terry McLaurin – each of whom has the speed and big-play ability to become a valuable DFS piece, but neither of whom can be relied on unless a miracle happens that turns this into a more aggressive offense. (A best case scenario for us in fantasy would be Haskins making starts down the stretch, where we could potentially target his rookie aggressiveness and his carryover connection from college with McLaurin.) Jordan Reed will also be available to make an impact on the field when healthy; though in considering Reed, it is always worth keeping in mind the fact that offensive identity and game environment are more important than talent, and there will usually be tight ends on a slate with a higher floor and ceiling than Reed can claim to have in this offense.

Of course, our entire writeup points away from Washington’s passing attack and toward its run game, as this is the area on which this offense hopes to focus. Adrian Peterson piled up seven games last year of 90 or more rushing yards, while also adding eight total touchdowns and a surprising one or two or three targets per game. Given question marks on both this offensive line and this team’s ability to consistently put up points, it is dangerous to lean too heavily on a running back here; but it would not be surprising if Derrius Guice quickly takes over the starting job in this backfield, which could make him an intriguing large-field tournament piece in certain spots throughout the year.

This is a bad offense on a bad team, in a poorly-run organization, making it easy to stay away from this squad most weeks. When it comes to large-field tournaments, however, it sometimes becomes valuable to take on upside pieces from a team like this, as these are the types of pieces that can help you take down first place as everyone looks the other way.