In this article, I will detail the impact of four recent developments in the NFL and examine how these changes altered my model and impacted opinions on the fantasy and betting markets. The final three moves are on the offensive side of the ball, but I will begin with a defensive player who was added back into the model in the latest run: Chargers safety Derwin James.
Derwin James is on Track to Play
With certain players, it gets to a point where I feel I need to see them healthy to believe it, and I leave them out of the modeling process. Chargers safety Derwin James had reportedly been on track to play throughout the offseason, but I waited until he had made it through significant football activity to add him back into the model, which created an interesting experiment in the latest run.
There are few non-quarterbacks in the NFL who move the needle like James, a reflection of the fact that there is not another player who is remotely similar to him at his best. To compare James to a modern player requires a combination of players: he brings the physical nature and elite cover skills of Jalen Ramsey in the slot, the ball-hawking ability of Minkah Fitzpatrick as a free safety, and Jamal Adams’ ability to line up in the box and affect the game as a blitzer and run-stuffer.
James’ presence fundamentally changes the Chargers’ defense and significantly boosts their defensive rating, which translates to a dropoff of roughly 26 points throughout the season. That raw total may not sound impressive, but a decrease of 6.13% in expected points against in a league as competitive as the NFL is a notable impact for a single defender.
This impact isn’t significant enough against a particular opponent to notably alter season-long fantasy projections for any offensive players, but it does change the overall outlook for the AFC West. The Chargers have a higher probability of being a solid two-way team with James in the fold, which sets them apart from the one-sided Broncos and Raiders. Los Angeles was the second team in the model behind Kansas City before James was added in, but the difference is more clear-cut after the change. His presence also makes it easier for new head coach Bradon Staley to boost this defense via coaching and scheme the way he did for the Rams, which means there’s also potential for this defense to exceed the post-James boosted numbers. If that happens, the Chargers will be a legitimate threat to the Chiefs even if nothing goes wrong for Patrick Mahomes and company.
My division preview series had the Chargers with roughly a 20% chance to win the AFC West, which provide\d a slight value on prices of +450 at DraftKings and +500 at FanDuel. I’d boost them to a 25% chance with Derwin in the fold, and with +490 available at FanDuel, like the value available on the Chargers to win the AFC West.
Sony Michel Traded to Rams
The evidence is that the group of backs behind Darrell Henderson failed to impress Sean McVay and the rest of the Rams coaching staff, as the team acquired former first-round pick Sony Michel from the New England Patriots. Michel had already had his fifth-year option declined by New England, so this is a one-year deal while Cam Akers works back from his Achilles injury.
Michel hasn’t distinguished himself as a standout NFL back and does little to move the needle for the upside of the Rams offense, but this trade is a disappointment for those looking to take the under on the Rams win total or bet against them in the NFC West, as Michel’s addition is insurance against the possibility of the Rams offense going sideways because they lack a competent running back.
My background may get me pigeonholed as an “analytics” person, but while I think the debate on relative position value is endlessly interesting, the suggestion that any position in NFL football “doesn’t matter” has always struck me as ridiculous. The Rams made their attempt to find a backup back by trying out relatively unknown players, but this trade indicates that didn’t go the way they hoped, and Michel’s presence significantly increases the odds that they will have a competent back available during a season where they had already invested massive resources on offense.
The move does not help fantasy football owners, as Michel’s addition to the running back room crushes Darrell Henderson’s fantasy projection. Henderson is a one-speed runner with great outside burst who was in line to be a true number one by default, but Michel’s addition likely means they go running back by committee, and neither has a notable history as a pass-catcher to supplement their carry share.
It’s a move that will likely cause more inaction than action in the markets: there’s one less reason to take the under on 10.5 wins at FanDuel, which is priced at -140, and there’s little reason to target either Rams back in fantasy.
Travis Etienne Goes Down
The Jaguars raised some eyebrows with the selection of former Clemson running back Travis Etienne with their second first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Etienne will have to wait another year to prove his detractors wrong after a Lisfranc injury put him on IR before the season started.
Jacksonville did not profile as a team likely to be particularly good even before their alarmingly bad performances in the preseason, so Etienne’s injury doesn’t change much about the team’s season outlook, but it does provide significant clarity for multiple fantasy players.
James Robinson will likely split some carries with Carlos Hyde, but Hyde has done little as a receiver in his NFL career, so Robinson becomes a viable fantasy option given his projected workloads as a rusher and receiver. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault is also clearly the “offensive weapon” in this Urban Meyer offense, a situation that was muddied when the Jaguars worked Etienne out as a wide receiver during OTA practices.
The downside is that the clear roles for Robinson and Shenault come as Jacksonville has looked inept in their preseason performances. Things could swing notably once the regular season begins, and that could offer some value on these fantasy options, but it would also be preferable for the Jaguars offense to look even semi-competent given that the preseason is supposed to offer relatively easy situations to work in.
The big winner in the model is Robinson, who jumped from 98th in Full PPR Projected Points for Skill players to 64th. This offense may not be good, but that was true last year and Robinson was a productive back despite the group around him.
Latavius Murray is a Potential Cut Candidate
Every NFL season brings players who have either improved or declined notably in the half-year between the end of the season and the start of training camp, and Saints Head Coach Sean Payton’s comments that Tony Jones Jr. is their number two back indicates Murray dropped off during the offseason. The film did not suggest he was on the precipice of a decline, and the Saints apparently didn’t anticipate this given that Murray survived their offseason veteran purge, but there’s a lot of work that goes into maintaining NFL-level athleticism in the offseason and Payton’s comments suggest Murray has fallen off.
Murray was not a priority target in fantasy, but he did profile as a useful complementary piece for owners targeting late-round running backs. He rushed for 637 and 656 yards in his first two seasons with the Saints, caught 34 and 23 balls, and scored six total touchdowns in each season. It’s a leap of faith to project that Tony Jones Jr. will soak up all of that production without seeing him in a regular-season game, which means that the New Orleans backfield goes from a player who should be rostered in Murray to a $1 Auction Lottery ticket in Jones.
It will be important to monitor this situation closely in the final preseason game and early in the season because this loss is unlikely to result in more volume for Alvin Kamara. Payton’s staff has demonstrated in past years that they believe Kamara is at his best at a particular touch rate that he has consistently hit, as shown by his reception totals of 81, 81, 81, and 83 in four years. Overloading Kamara for a full season makes injury more likely, and while Kamara battled through an ankle injury during one season, he’s notably more efficient when his legs are healthy and he can fully utilize the cutting ability that makes him so spectacular. That means there are carries to be had, and there will be early value for whoever seizes that role, whether it’s Jones, a currently unknown option, or Murray finding a way to bounce back.
Murray’s decline could prove more detrimental than anticipated for the team’s prospects if the Saints don’t find someone who matches his production, but Sean Payton has a history of finding productive backs through a variety of avenues and is excited about Jones Jr, so this move doesn’t notably change their season outlook, but it’s a factor in fantasy and took Murray’s rushing yards Prop Bet off the board at DraftKings.
This article examined four recent NFL moves and their impact on the fantasy and gambling markets. Similar articles will be available next week as the preseason ends and final cuts give more clarity to roster construction across the NFL as we approach the opener. For more content from the Professor, check out the BeerLife Sports website.
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.
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