Should we prioritize Buffalo Bills RB James Cook?

Fantasy football analyst Matt Harmon reveals what he learned after reviewing some of his projections for 2023.

I may like the Steelers offense too much

I was really hoping to not be in this position.

I have said many times over the last few seasons that Matt Canada’s offense is the most poorly designed in the NFL. Sure, there’s plenty of pizzazz like presnap motion and wide receiver jet sweeps but it’s a whole lot of flash with little substance. The route combinations are too basic and are particularly problematic for beating today’s two-high, zone-heavy defenses in the NFL, which lends itself to inefficient receiving metrics. Pittsburgh doesn’t mix in enough play action (18.3% of dropbacks per PFF) and even when it does, there isn’t enough of a marriage between its run and play pass concepts.

And yet, I’m liking how this passing offense is set up in fantasy football.

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Despite some of my issues with Canada’s offensive design, he’s generally called plays the way we like out of coordinators. The Steelers have maintained a 39% rushing play rate the last three years — they were more balanced in Kenny Pickett’s rookie season — and have run an average of 1,088 plays in that span, sixth-most in the league. That’s a lot of volume on the table for players to eat.

The talent in the passing game is good. Pickett finished 2022 with some high moments and most importantly, showed he could play off-script a bit. He finished the season with 237 rushing yards and three scores on 55 carries in 13 games. He also had the sixth-longest time to throw in the NFL last season, indicating he was often scrambling or trying to pull off second-reaction plays. I am unsure just how high Pickett’s ceiling is but he’s shown he’s functional.

The receiver tandem of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens is exciting and each player has untapped upside to date. Johnson is a fantastic route runner who separates at all levels. Pickens isn’t the same separator but is a strong vertical X-receiver who wins in tight coverage. No one wants to hear it but Allen Robinson is a great fit as this team’s big slot receiver. Pat Freiermuth is a rock-solid tight end. With the potential volume in this offense, you can comfortably project all four of those pass-catchers to outkick ADP.

You don’t have to pound the table to get any of these passing game players on your fake teams, either. They don’t have a receiver inside the top-30 consensus rankings, Freiermuth is a fringe top-90 pick and early drafters don’t seem to see any bull-case for Pickett in Year 2. Najee Harris is the only Steeler to go inside the top 60 picks and ironically, he’s the least appealing value-relative pick of the bunch.

Perhaps this ends up being a situation where I need to get my head out of the spreadsheets and focus on the frustrations I’ve seen on film for years charting these wide receivers. But if Matt Canada evolves as an offensive designer and Pickett takes a leap, there’s upside to be gained from the Pittsburgh passing attack.

James Cook is a nice RB target

I didn’t imagine I’d come into this fantasy draft season super into taking James Cook but I’m reconsidering that take.

You don’t need to project Cook for much more than a 40 percent share of the team rush attempts and seven percent of the targets to have him come in right near his RB31 ADP. Rich Hribar made the point on a recent episode of the Yahoo Fantasy Football Show that Cook is an arbitrage play on guys within this player archetype who go earlier, like Jahmyr Gibbs, Rachaad White and D’Andre Swift.

When Damien Harris signed with the team I imagined he’d be a clear target for me. The Bills signing Latavius Murray for nearly the exact same money gave me pause and doing projections really reminded me how thin the margin for error is for this type of back. In a best-case scenario, Harris is the early-down banger back for a team that does need to run the ball better in 2023 but also will have their quarterback as a threat around the goal line. I don’t think that makes Harris a terrible pick at his 124th overall ADP, it’s just a reminder of how long the road is.

You don’t even have to be in on the drumbeat that he’s “destined for at least half the offensive snaps this season,” from training camp to like Cook at his ADP. You simply need to believe he is an efficient player — not a tall ask based on his rookie flashes and the context of this offense — in a valuable fantasy role.

The Giants were conservative and run-heavy last season. That was likely out of necessity, not desire considering both head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka’s history.

The Bills offenses in 2020 and 2021 checked in with a 38% and 41% rushing play rate. Kafka came from Kansas City where they averaged 37.5% in those seasons. That’s way south of the 47% the Giants maintained in this duo’s inaugural season at the helm.

That’s a mark of good coaching. The Giants’ two best players on offense by a country mile were their franchise running back, Saquon Barkley, and rushing quarterback, Daniel Jones. The receiver and tight end rooms were wildly light throughout the season.

With Darren Waller added to the mix as a move option and in-line guy Daniel Bellinger set to take a step in Year 2, tight end is worlds better. Isaiah Hodgins gave them a solid answer at X-receiver down the stretch and the wide receiver room is now stocked to the brim with speed flanker and slot receiver options.

If this positional remake along with Jones being in the system for a second season gives Daboll and Kafka confidence to open the playbook up, this attack could look quite a bit different than last season. There is certainly risk, for different reasons, with both Waller and Jones but overall, they look like reasonable draft values with excellent bull-case projections.

Someone has to lose in the Titans’ passing game

Even with a change at offensive coordinator following Tim Kelly’s promotion, it’s hard to get the Titans far away from the NFL’s basement in terms of projectable pass attempts. Kelly has overseen some faster and more pass-heavy offenses than the coordinators under Mike Vrabel’s reign in Tennessee but it’s still a stretch to imagine them pushing the ball in the air too often.

That means that the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins creates a target squeeze in Tennessee.

Hopkins is a diminished player from his truly elite peak but showed the last two seasons (when on the field) that he remains a solid short to intermediate route runner with the same knack at winning in tight coverage. He didn’t handle a 27% target share in Arizona by default. He’s still a guy quarterbacks rightfully gravitate toward.

I’m not even projecting Hopkins for that type of target share in Tennessee but even a 24% mark gets problematic for the young bucks on the roster.

You can still comfortably get Treylon Burks over 100 targets but the ceiling is diminished. Frankly, I don’t think he was ready to be a No. 1 target-earner for an efficient offense, so Hopkins’ arrival can be good news for his potential per-route/target efficiency. The industry reacted to the veteran’s arrival and Burks is now a fringe top-40 receiver in consensus ADP. That is a reasonable proposition, in my view.

The bigger issue is Chigoziem Okonkwo’s target ceiling. He was excellent down the stretch as a rookie and is the exact type of athlete we want to bet on at the position. I struggled to get him north of 14% of the team targets, especially now that this team wisely started to sprinkle in Derrick Henry as an outlet receiver last season. Okonkwo doesn’t go high in drafts though, so he’s not an avoid for me. The high end range of outcomes, however, just got more difficult to imagine.

One of those two second-year pass-catchers can still outkick their ADP this season. But it likely can only be one of them at this point. I just don’t have a ton of conviction on which player it will be.

You can like all three Seahawks WRs

If Jaxson Smith-Njigba is as good as advertised (I’m a believer), the Seattle Seahawks have one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL. And there’s more than enough volume for these three to all be excellent fantasy draft picks.

DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett combined for a 45.4% target share in 2022. They can stick right around or come in just below that number this season and both be top-20 receivers. You don’t have to scrape targets from them to get JSN his looks. If you take a little target share from the fringey tight ends and a bit from the running backs, you can get the rookie to north of 100 targets without a stretch.

The Seahawks did not draft a wide receiver at 20th overall to continue to run two tight-end sets at a high rate. Shane Waldron’s experience comes from working under the 11-personnel-heavy Rams. Sean McVay found his way to running three-receiver sets over the 12 personnel looks he envisioned for LA because that position was a roster strength. The same is now true for Seattle.

All that we need to be all-in on all three of JSN, Lockett and Metcalf is for Geno Smith to play the way he did in 2022. He didn’t thrive on gimmicky plays or with smoke and mirrors. His performance was stable.

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