It’s a small sample size – I get it. Writing about season-long implications of week one performances is a risky proposition to be sure (Kevin Ogletree, anyone?). But at least it is something. We spent the off-season writing about the potential season-long daily fantasy football implications of various personnel moves with virtually nothing to go on, so any sample size is a good sample size at this point.
Week one is actually capable of teaching us a few things:
1. No matter how closely we study the roster moves and coaching changes across the NFL, we are always going to miss at least one big one (see: Allen Hurns, potentially).
2. It is not always new and different that can make the biggest splash. Sometimes it is hard work and improvement, or even just being healthy again (in other words, yes we did notice Cordarelle Patterson).
3. You need to appreciate it when your analysis is spot on, because there is always next week, and you’re just going to have to do it again.
So, on that note, we are going to take a look at two related off-season moves, how they looked in Week 1, and what that might mean going forward. The two moves: the Eagles acquisition of Darren Sproles from the Saints, and the Saints drafting of speedy wide-receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cooks first. This is a guy who saw his stock rising in fantasy football circles throughout the preseason. That alone is certainly no proof of anything – those kind of predictions end as often as not with a player who simply can’t produce come game time. The argument against Cooks was simply that he is a rookie receiver in a tough system to master, and the Saints just spread the ball around too much. He would suffer the same fate as Lance Moore or Devery Henderson, with big moments interspersed among long stretches of watching Brees feed someone else. The argument for Cooks was that Moore was gone, Sproles was gone, and the opportunity looked like it was there for someone with his skill set to step in and gobble up a lot of production. And after week one, it seems like the second scenario could end up proving accurate.
I’ll grant the naysayers that Stills was out of the lineup this week, and I will counter with: what if Cooks is just a lot better than Stills? I, for one, have never been blown away by anything in particular Stills does well, whereas Cooks’ athleticism – in this teeny, tiny sample size – jumped off the screen at you in a way no Saints receiver’s has in a while. He showed the quickness and elusiveness to get off the line and into short, precision routes on time, which is key with a QB like Brees pulling the strings (and reminds me of a former Chargers and Saints running back now in Philly who did a lot of the same thing). But at the same time, Cooks also showed the straight-ahead speed and ball-skills to be able to make defenders respect the deep routes.
So if the talent is there, will the opportunity be, or will Cooks really go the way of Lance Moore, et al? Will he perpetually frustrate fantasy owners by struggling to emerge as even fantasy relevant, despite being the #2 WR on one of the most prolific offenses in football? Well, if yesterday was any indication, let’s just say that Cooks has a chance to break that mold. And we shouldn’t be all that surprised – of course Sean Payton is going to put him in a position to succeed. Yes, let’s give some credit to the coach. Sproles left – does that mean Brees is still going to throw 27% of his passes to running backs (as he did last year), or does it mean the combination of Sproles and Pierre Thomas just had a very unique skill set that Payton and Brees took advantage of? Well, yesterday, Thomas had seven targets, just slightly above his per-game average last year and all other running backs had… one target. What do you know, a change in scheme to match a change in personnel… just exactly the kind of flexibility that marks a good coach. Talent + opportunity? I’ll take it.
Remember how I said that Sean Payton was a good enough offensive coach that we should just expect him to take advantage of the talents of his players? I said it about ten seconds ago, so you should. Well, the same is true of Chip Kelly. The big fear with Darren Sproles was, of course, LeSean McCoy. First, McCoy is too good for Sproles to get any real action, and second, if Sproles did get real action, well, gosh-darn-it, that’s not good for McCoy! Well, McCoy had 21 carries and six catches yesterday, both up from his averages last season. And Sproles had 11 carries and four catches. What do you know, Kelly found a way to use both of them!
Here’s the thing about Chip Kelly: he runs a hurry-up offense, but he likes to run the ball. And here’s the thing about hurry-up offenses: you can’t sub in a new RB in the middle of a series. So, they’ll both play together a lot, and they will play separately. And when Sproles is out there to be a receiving option, or to spell McCoy for a bit, if the Eagles starting putting together a few first downs, he is staying out there. And if that means he gets even 75% of his catches from last year and averages even close to the 11 carries he got yesterday (say, seven or eight even), he is going to be a very interesting option every single week, especially in a PPR format.
The takeaway? Sproles and Cooks are both very enticing options when they are value plays, like this week. The question remaining, though, is more important: do they continue to be so interesting when they become mid-priced players? Somewhat expensive? What’s the cutoff? Obviously it is all relative to what everyone else in the league is producing, but if history tells us anything it is that Sproles just is what we thought he was: on the Chargers, Saints, Eagles, whoever – he’s quick and explosive, and he can catch, and he will likely top out as a mid-priced option well worth considering when the matchup looks right. Cooks though, is a different kind of animal, who could be joining forces with the Keenan Allens and Cordarelles of the world to create a new pecking order at the top of the WR rankings over the next few years. Once a guy reaches a spot where not choosing him seems just as dangerous as choosing him, once you are constantly nervous that the other guy might have him when you don’t, then the sky is the limit on where his price will go, and he’ll be worth it every step of the way.