For this installment of the NFL Season reviews, we take a look at a team who were under the spotlight early via Hard Knocks, the Oakland Raiders. We needed the question of “Is Jon Gruden outdated?” answered and the post Pittsburgh Steelers Antonio Brown had more than a few surprises in store. Could they shock the NFL by making it to the postseason in their last season in Oakland?
Entering the season
This was to be the Raiders last season in Oakland before they pack their bags for Vegas. The Black Hole sad, especially when they saw the product on the pitch last year with Gruden taking over with Mike Mayock in tow.
Due to their trades made including Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, the Raiders were bolstered by 3 1st round draft picks. Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs and Jonathan Abram were those picks and without any doubt, the Raiders were expected to show improvements under John Gruden after their poor performance the season prior, finishing 4-12.
As the face of Hard Knocks this season, there was a big spotlight on them and none more so than Free Agent acquisition Antonio Brown. It’s fair to say that the gamble on him did not pay off and the AB got “cold feet”. Other characters such as Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict were signed to the team.
During the season
The Raiders opened up 3-2 before their week 6 bye which included a win in London against the Bears which was dubbed the “Khalil Mack Bowl”.
Wins against the Chargers, Lions and Bengals saw them improve to 6-4 and were always mathematically in the hunt for a playoff place all the way up to week 17. This was despite losing 5 of their last 6 games with a point differential of -81 in those games.
The Raiders only wins came from beating non-playoff teams which is a good indication that they are no better than average in the league aided by the fact they were 24th in both offensive and defensive scoring. But it’s more the long term outlook that will give the Black Hole optimism going forward; Young team, Gruden starting get the team working how he wants them too and the players certainly play for him.
Derek Carr was a slight improvement from last year’s form and his relationship with Gruden continues to be a mystery. He set a career high in completion % and season passer QB rating, but that probably can be explained by his continued avoidance of throwing deep down field.
Standout players for the Raiders, you have to start with Josh Jacobs and Tight end Darren Waller. Josh Jacobs rushed for over 1100 yards and notched 7 TDs in his rookie season whilst Darren Waller put all his previous troubles behind him, breaking out as the best receiving option for Carr, totaling 1145 yards on 90 receptions. 5th round pick Hunter Renfrow also had a nice rookie season despite missing a portion through injury.
On defence, 4th round pick Maxx Crosby got his name out there and got 10 sacks in an impressive opening season.
This was of course Oakland’s last season in Oakland as they now pack their bags to Las Vegas (assuming the stadium completes on time!). We’ll get treated to the Vegas experience early as the 2020 NFL draft will literally be on the Bellagio water fountains.
Derek Carr’s future will no doubt get some media attention this offseason and in the lead up to the draft. The Raiders can save $16m in cap space if they were to cut him and considering he is only commanding around $20m in the first place, isn’t the worst guy to keep around. In total, they have around $60m to play with with seems quite low considering their recent influx of rookies.
Considering the talent Mayock and Gruden brought in since their arrival, a good 2020 haul could really see the raiders make a push in their new home for January football. They have 2 1st round picks in 2020 as part of the Khalil Mack trade and will be picking from spots 12 and 19. They still have a few areas to improve on which includes the WR position.
I love deep diving in fantasy football. It’s one of the many areas within the industry that I just love researching. From favourable roster positions to raw, unearthed talent – trying to scrap around in the bargain bins of fantasy football to find the next Alvin Kamara, Adam Thielen or even Odell Beckham who was overlooked by fantasy owners in 2014; deep diving is certainly one of my favourite offseason past times.
It’s been a fruitful offseason of scouting for me too, so much so I had to split this article into two parts! The first part featured the likes of Dylan Cantrell, WR (L.A Chargers), Deon Yelder, TE (Kansas City Chiefs), Chris Conley, WR (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Darren Waller, TE (Oakland Raiders) and part two will offer up 4 more super deep sleepers that are not to be ignored late on in your drafts!
Let’s dig in!
Dexter Williams – Running Back, Green Bay Packers
Sure, Aaron Jones is the bell cow in Green Bay, I hear you. But, Jones doesn’t come without injury concerns. Of his two seasons to date, Jones has never completed more than 12 games in a regular season. This is mostly down to a reoccurring grade 2 knee sprain which has flared up on 3 different occasions.
If Jones does go down injured in 2019, or isn’t able to sustain his 49 rushing yards per game career average, the natural reaction will be to assume Jamaal Williams is the next guy up for the Pack, but that may not be the case. With a career average of just 3.7 yards per carry over his two years in the league baked in with mediocre-at-best receiving statistics (52 receptions for 472 yards, 9.1 per rec and 2 TD’s); I for one wouldn’t be surprised if new Head Coach Matt LaFleur decided to put trust into one of his drafted guys instead, Dexter Williams.
Dexter Williams was apart of the highly successful 2018 Notre Dame Fighting Irish team that managed to be one of the 4 teams that qualify for the College Football Playoffs. Despite missing 4 games because of undisclosed personal matters, Williams returned on week 5 for the Irish and ended the season with 995 rushing yards (6.3 per carry)with 133 receiving yards off 16 receptions with 13 total touchdowns.
Although he didn’t blow anyone away at the combine, his 40 time was fine (4.53s) and he managed 17 bench reps which was better than what higher picks Damien Harris (16), David Montgomery (15) and Benny Snell (16) managed.
Williams is a between the tackles kind of back, funnily enough, MockDraftable have him compared the best to none other than teammate Aaron Jones, thus confirming that if Jones was to miss time, it may well be Dexter that becomes the most productive ‘Williams’ in the Green Bay running back room.
His strengths coming out of college is that he possesses great vision and is a clever runner, especially when gaps are forged for him. To be successful in the NFL, he’ll need a good o-line in front of him to provide those needed gaps. The Packers offensive line is considered to be a top 10 line in the league, so the opportunity is there for Williams to be successful should the chance occur.
Alex Barnes – Running Back, Tennessee Titans
Who an earth is Alex Barnes, I hear you say. Well folks, Alex Barnes may well be the next Phillip Lindsay. An undrafted free agent rookie hailing from a small-ish school in the Big 12 conference who had 1,355 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns for Kansas State in 2018. Yes, that’s more than Devin Singletary (1,348), Miles Sanders (1,274) and David Montgomery (1,216) who are all highly regarded prospects and were all drafted.
His stats were not too dissimilar to Lindsay’s final college season in 2017, but Barnes is quite the opposite when it comes to physical attributes. At 6’1 and 225lbs, he is built from the same mold as Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Melvin Gordon. If you were drafting all four today solely on combine performances, Barnes wouldn’t be out of place alongside these big hitters.
40 Yard Dash
The situation for Barnes in Tennessee isn’t a bad one either. Despite Derrick Henry breaking out somewhat towards the end of the season, I still can’t help but get the impression the Titans are still undecided if Henry is their man.
Henry’s breakout game came in week 13 where he went on to finish the remainder of the season to break through the 1,000-yard rushing marker (1,059), however, 585 of those yards came after week 12 which means the Tennessee rushing game in the first two-thirds of the season was pretty non-existent.
They were quick to act on Barnes after the draft too, picking him up just over a week after the NFL draft was completed and was seemingly a high profile UDFA with multiple teams reportedly interested.
With Dion Lewis likely to remain in a pass-catching role and no other backs of significance on the depth chart in Nashville (David Fluellen, Jeremy McNichols, and Dalyn Dawkins) Alex Barnes may well be a household name for fantasy owners in the near future if he makes it onto the 53-man roster in late August.
John Brown – Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
John Brown may legitimately be the WR1 for the Buffalo Bills. Sure, as can Robert Foster and Zay Jones, I hear you, but have either of those receivers had over 1,000 yards receiving over the course of a season? No. In fact, Zay Jones’ best season in 2018 saw him rack up 652 receiving yards and just for the record, Foster had 541 yards and 3 scores in his one and only season to date.
I’ve always liked ‘Smokey’ Brown. Ever since his tantalising 1,003 rec yard and 7 touchdown season for Arizona in 2015, but it’s the injuries that have kept him from repeating those numbers. In his last two seasons of his rookie contract for the Cards, Brown only started 11 games, but when he did play, he still was able to perform to a high standard as he managed 13.3 and 14.2 yards per reception average in those seasons respectively.
Last year, however, Brown was able to play the majority of the campaign and started 15 games in his one-year prove-it deal with the Baltimore Ravens. Despite performing admirably in 2018 and somewhat ‘proving it’ with 715 yards off 42 receptions (17.0 yards per reception) and 5 touchdowns, the Ravens clearly had plans to centre the future passing offense through the young guns which rang true when they drafted college standouts Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin instead of re-signing Brown.
But the saying goes “another man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and I believe that to be true for the Bills when they grabbed Brown in the free agency. Let’s forget the past for a second and focus on the strengths of Brown and his new quarterback, Josh Allen.
Am I over-enamoured with Allen’s ability to be a quality NFL QB? Not particularly. But one thing that does impress me, along with the masses, is his arm strength. We saw it at the combine, you remember, the nigh on 70-yard cannonballs he was effortlessly floating into receivers arms. Well, what does that weapon require? A fast receiver who can get down the field. John Brown is one of the fastest players in the league when he’s at full fitness and could still likely hit his 4.34 40 time from his 2014 combine.
I’m buying in. Maybe not so much in PPR league formats as I don’t think Brown will be peppered with targets, after all, the Bills brought in possession receiver Cole Beasley for that role, but definitely as a “last pick dart throw” and definitely in standard-scoring leagues. I for one, will not be surprised if John Brown is a regular starting receiver on your rosters come fantasy playoff time in December.
Geoff Swaim – Tight End, Jacksonville Jaguars
This is the third tight end I am talking about during these 2 articles which just goes to prove you don’t have to spend a high draft pick on one of the top tight ends. It’s a volatile position where anyone of about 25 players can finish as a top 10 tight end in 2019 for fantasy football.
You can add Geoff Swaim into that mix too, mainly because he has been gifted a fantastic opportunity over in Duval county. Fellow newcomer and starting quarterback Nick Foles has had good success in the past when throwing to tight ends too; In his second stint in Philadelphia, Foles built a good rapport with superstar Zach Ertz, whilst also working with Travis Kelce at the Chiefs in 2016 and Jared Cook with his time as a St Louis Ram in 2015.
Swaim spent the majority of his rookie contract in Dallas firmly in the shadow of Jason Witten and didn’t get an opportunity to show any kind of attacking prowess until last season whilst Witten entertained us from the commentary booth instead of on the field.
Even then, Swaim found himself having to split targets with fellow tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, and even though he wasn’t the biggest producer out of the three, he was the most consistent with an 81.3% catch rate – which was also the highest on the team and 14th best in the league.
This year, Swaim is taking those safe hands to pastures new where there is only an unproven rookie in Josh Oliver to contend with on the depth chart for pass-catching duties out of the tight end position.
In fact, the whole receiving core in Jacksonville is up for debate. With no clear WR1, no proven hot hand in the receiving game and a new quarterback with a proven track record of success throwing to tight ends, Geoff Swaim could be a sneaky pickup for fantasy players despite not having the best career-to-date statistics. Opportunity is king for fantasy tight ends and Swaim may well be the endzone target the Jags are crying out for.
How deep? I’m talking Adele level Rolling in the Deep. Actually, even deeper. These sleepers could even be considered Sum 41 level of potentially being In Too Deep.
Yes, welcome to that time of year where us analysts like to breakdown our opinions and try to work out which of the late round picks could potentially be a serviceable piece on your fantasy teams. Two years ago saw Alvin Kamara win titles for owners when being picked up in the latter rounds and last year was Phillip Lindsey’s turn. Tip of the cap to any analysts who went deep to pick him out as a deep sleeper for 2018.
So which players are worth monitoring this off-season and worth either a late round flyer in re-draft leagues or picking up as a taxi squad member/final bench spot in your dynasty leagues? Take a look at these candidates that could be on fantasy radars at some point this season:
Dylan Cantrell – Wide Receiver, Los Angeles Chargers
From a pure talent standpoint, Cantrell was one of the best possession receivers coming out of the 2018 draft and a great under the radar pickup in the 6th round by the Chargers. Unfortunately for him, he fell into a busy depth chart of talented receivers mixed in with a leg injury he sustained during preseason meant he subsequently found himself on the Chargers practice squad for the most of last season before being promoted to the first team roster for the final two weeks.
But after a less than impressive season from Travis Benjamin (186 rec yards and 1 TD) tied in with the loss of Tyrell WIlliams in the free agency, there are definitely productive receiving spots up for grabs in one of the most high powered offenses in the league.
In his last 2 seasons playing for Texas Tech, Cantrell bagged 129 receptions for 1,491 yards and 15 combined touchdowns, but it’s not the stats that blow me away. After watching his highlight tape coming out of college, it is apparent that he possesses an elite set of hands and can make the most difficult catches look easy.
A fair comparison to make for Cantrell would be Vikings star receiver Adam Thielen, not just from a talent standpoint, but from a situational one too. Thielen was a guy very much in the background of the depth chart in Minnesota before being given a chance 2 years after being picked up as a UDFA and has since become one of the leagues best, and most reliable receivers.
We know Mike Williams has tremendous red-zone upside and Keenan Allen is currently one of the best possession receivers in the league, but we also know that these are the type of receiver that Philip Rivers likes to target the most. Considering Allen hasn’t had the cleanest of injury slates and the aforementioned Travis Benjamin regressing in his career, Cantrell could be in a prime spot to gain a bigger role in 2019 and could develop into a “Thielen-type” player over the next couple of seasons.
Deon Yelder – Tight End, Kansas City Chiefs
Another under the radar player coming into the league at the beginning of last season as a UDFA was Deon Yelder. Hailing from Western Kentucky, it’s no surprise that he wasn’t picked up in the draft, but how often do we see talented players go ignored on draft day just because they went to a small school?
He was the star of Western Kentucky during his senior year after producing 688 receiving yards from 52 receptions and as a result managed to earn a place in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and a call up to the Senior Bowl where he caught a touchdown.
He started the 2018 season on the New Orleans Saints practice squad before being released in October, but was picked up immediately the next day by the Chiefs in a bid to strengthen the tight end depth chart behind superstar Travis Kelce and was promoted to the first team towards the end of the season, albeit mainly for special team duties.
As with the majority of tight ends coming into the NFL – it almost always takes at least a season for players to get acclimated into the position as it is one of the most versatile positions and therefore hardest to learn in all of football.
With a full year of pro status under his belt and learning from one of the best that’s ever done it in Travis Kelce, Yelder could be primed to step his performances up a notch or two. Tie this is with the uncertainty of what is happening within the offense in Kansas City – the unknown ramifications of Tyreek Hill’s personal issues and the loss of Kareem Hunt in 2018, receiving roles could be up for grabs at Arrowhead this season.
Rookie receiver Mecole Hardman comes with a lot of buzz in tow and will likely see his fair share of targets, but with question marks looming over the rest of the receiving corps, Yelder could be a candidate to share a healthy workload with fellow tight end Kelce and potentially produce fantasy relevant numbers, especially as part of an air raid offense led by the super talented gunslinger, Patrick Mahomes.
Should Kelce go down with an injury too, Yelder ticks a lot of boxes to be a sure fire replacement and a hot commodity pick-up of the waiver wires. Beat the rush, grab him early and stash him away.
Chris Conley – Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
I know Chris Conley hasn’t exactly moved mountains in his time in the NFL so far, but he hasn’t been terrible either. He played out his rookie contract in Kansas City and managed to finish his four years there with 1,238 yards with 6 touchdowns.
It was always going to be an up-hill battle for the former Georgia receiver in Kansas with the emergence of Tyreek Hill and stalwart Travis Kelce always demanding the first reads. Still, he was able to prevail to some degree last season and took advantage of the 52 targets thrown his way by season MVP Patrick Mahomes converting 5 of those for touchdowns.
It’s his new situation which intrigues me the most. Jacksonville does not have a nailed on WR1 heading into training camp which means it will be a case of “who can impress Nick Foles the most” to see who will win the battle to become the go-to guy.
Dede Westbrook seems to be the favorite among analysts to be the main target, but hasn’t really proved that he can bring superiority to the receiving ranks on the Jag’s depth chart in the two seasons he’s spent in Northern Florida (1,056 receiving yards with 6 TDs).
It’s a similar story for Marqise Lee, he too hasn’t proved he can be the front-runner for the job despite a few eye-catching moments over the last 4 seasons, and of course, is coming back off an ACL tear that cut short his 2018 campaign. Last years’ second round pick D.J Chark barely saw the field last season so is somewhat of an unknown quantity whilst the ‘breakout of Keelan Cole’ in 2017 was about as short-lived as an AAF season.
One thing that attracted Conley to Jacksonville was the long term signing of Nick Foles. The two have previously been teammates during Foles’ stint with the Chiefs in 2016. This could end up being a determining factor for building chemistry and winning camp battles early on in the pre-season process.
In short, Chris Conley has about as much chance as any of these other receivers of being Foles’ main target in 2019. But who knows, the step up in performance after a fairly successful final season in KC may well have been the spark to ignite the fire.
If he’s able to turn heads at training camp and re-kindle a ‘bromance’ with Foles’, the former superbowl MVP certainly has the ability to sustain at least one solid WR2/Flex option in fantasy. Out of all of the receivers vying for that spot, Conley also has speed (4.35 40 dash time at his combine) which is a weapon that the other receivers in Duval may lack, and may well put him a stride ahead of the others in the pecking order.
Darren Waller – Tight End, Oakland Raiders
The tight end position in Oakland is polarizing. From barely using the position in 2016, to steadily making it a fringe pick for fantasy rosters in 2017, to completely blowing it out of the water with 1,111 yards and 10 TD’s going to the position in 2018.
So does Derek Carr like targeting tight ends, or was Jared Cook’s performances last season (896 yards, 6 TDs) an outlier for the position? Well, just in case it wasn’t, you might want to consider adding Darren Waller to your fantasy rosters.
Waller started off his NFL career when drafted by the Baltimore Ravens as a wide-receiver in the 2015 draft. He was a practice squad member for the majority of his rookie campaign but switched to tight end in the 2016 off-season to join what has since become the ‘tight end circus’ in Baltimore.
Waller doesn’t come without question marks though. Unfortunately he has a history of suspensions from the league for abusing it’s alcohol and drug policies. He missed the entirety of the 2017 season for a year spent in rehab along before being picked up by the Raiders mid-way through last season where he made brief appearances in the last 4 games.
The off-season training camp in Oakland is buzzing around Waller though after he claims that those dark days are well and truly behind him as he focuses solely on his career as a pro. Coach Gruden, Offensive Coordinator Greg Olsen and Derek Carr have all been singing his praises through OTA’s making Waller a perfect deep sleeper candidate.
In an interview after a recent training camp session he certainly sounded like he is confident with stepping up to have a bigger role in the offense and cited he’s been getting help with blocking duties and also mentioned learning from Cook last year.
The most impressive weapon in his arsenal is his speed. At 6’6 and 255 lbs, Waller is a physical specimen and makes it hard to believe that he recorded a 4.45 40 time at his combine in 2015. Speaking to reporters during OTA’s, Carr was quick to mentioned how impressed he is with Waller’s athleticism stating “I’m really excited about him, Darren Waller is super, super-fast, if I’m being real. And he works his tail off.”
If Waller is indeed all he his cracked up to be and the buzz around Oakland is real, he could be in prime position to soak up some of the 101 targets or 896 yards that Jared Cook has left behind and could be a very nice add for your fantasy teams in a position where after the top tier, anyone can step up to fantasy relevance. Particularly coming from the receiving background that he does, this should automatically boost his fantasy stock.
by Rob Grimwood – @FFBritBaller
Thanks for reading this article, make sure you check back with us next week where I will be discussing 4 other deep deeep sleepers that need to be monitored this off-season in Part 2 of this mini-series.