Deployment matters a great deal when it comes to NFL success. To deny that how players are used, where they line up or fit with others in their offense, has an outsized impact on the stats they accumulate is patently absurd.
As such, one of the most important storylines to track in training camps is where guys are being deployed. Let others fawn over one-handed catch videos or smoke-blowing by coaches. You keep your eye on what matters.
Here are seven players (including a couple of situations) who I think will have their outlooks dramatically affected by their deployment or that of those around them.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
As the consensus-ranked 11th player at his position with a top-20 overall ADP, the fantasy hive-mind expects Antonio Gibson to produce RB1 numbers. Understandably, some folks might be hesitant to go out on that limb, based on his 2020 usage.
Gibson’s 44 targets as a rookie aren’t alarmingly low. When you put it in the context that his backfield teammate J.D. McKissic drew 110, however, it becomes a bit more troubling since the latter is still on the roster.
It’s worth noting that Washington had every reason to slow-play Gibson as a third-down back last year. McKissic’s place in the rotation led to a predictable laser-focus on him from Alex Smith. But as a clear-cut rocketing talent, Gibson could easily rip some of those reps away from the veteran in Year 2.
Overall offensive efficiency should help him jump up the ranks of fantasy backs either way. Being the primary ball-carrier for a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense suddenly deeper with ascending pass-catchers is much better than the mud Gibson ran through in 2020. Nevertheless, if we get camp reports that he’s on the field for all three downs and a fixture in the passing game, it'll help boost his ceiling and floor projections.
LaViska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars
Some in certain sections of the fantasy space were ready to bring out the pyre for a Viking-style funeral for LaViska Shenault’s 2021 breakout after the NFL Draft.
It appeared Urban Meyer had Kadarius Toney ticketed for his trademark “slasher” role and then settled for Travis Etienne. Translation: Anyone but Shenault.
If you want Shenault to experience a full breakout, you don’t want him in some gadget role similar to the one he played in as a rookie. Sure, the additional 18 touches via the ground game seem nice but you’ll take the tradeoff brought on by a more traditional receiver role if it kickstarts his 6.2 average depth of target.
My personal wish is to have Shenault operate as a big slot and get on a developmental path similar to what the Panthers did with DJ Moore through his first two years. If we get reports out of training camp that Shenault is being deployed as more of a true receiver — and especially a slot man — we need to seriously consider the idea he can be the best receiver out of Jacksonville.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
We’re spending so much time this offseason hand-wringing about who will win the Chiefs' WR2 job.
What if the answer is: It doesn’t really matter?
The answer to who picks up the slack behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce might just be more passes to Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Essentially every piece of analysis we threw at Edwards-Helaire that boosted him up to being a mid-first-round pick as a rookie still applies. He’s still the clear-cut RB1 for a Patrick Mahomes-led team. That is still one of the most valuable positions in all of football.
If Edwards-Helaire gets a bump from the 4.2 targets per game he saw last year, he can smash ADP. Deployment in this area will be key.
Van Jefferson, Los Angeles Rams
With Gerald Everrett out the door, we should comfortably project the Rams' offense to return to their 11-personnel roots. We know that means Cooper Kupp will reprise his role as the big slot with Robert Woods owning one outside spot as the flanker.
The X-receiver position is wide open in Los Angeles.
In an ideal world, one where we could project DeSean Jackson to play a full season, he’d be the best fit as a vertical ripper. Since we live in reality, Van Jefferson is a better bet to be an every-down player.
I don’t know how much more meat will be left on the bone after Kupp, Woods and Tyler Higbee eat in the passing game but Jefferson is still worth monitoring. Camp reports will go far in deciphering his role.
Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Damien Harris doesn’t have much competition for the early-down role in New England but he still carries an ADP outside the top-25 running backs.
Despite the New England offense still looking a bit weak on paper, there’s no doubt they’ll be a better unit in 2021 than last year’s outfit. That should boost the scoring-drive potential for Harris, a guy who ran well last season and has already received praise this offseason.
The key for Harris remaining a value in fantasy drafts will be getting reports that he does indeed have the early-down role locked up — and whether he’s getting any passing game reps. James White is still the receiving fixture in New England but unlike some past Patriot running-back bangers, Harris was a receiving back in college.
Also, it could be a boost for Harris if we hear Cam Newton is giving ground to Mac Jones in camp. While I’m rooting for Cam, there’s no doubt a non-rushing quarterback would boost the check-down and goal-line work for the Patriots starting back.
The entire Denver Broncos offense
At least one of Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, or Noah Fant is overrated in fantasy football.
It’s tough to imagine a Teddy Bridgewater- or Drew Lock-offense supporting two top-35 wide receivers and a top-10 tight end all while helping to deliver on the rising enthusiasm around rookie runner Javonte Williams. We’re going to need a lot more scoring drives than what the Bridgewater experience brought us in Carolina last year, especially since Denver’s defense won’t have Bridgewater in as many negative game scripts. A more stable version of the Lock coaster will be required.
Good luck with that.
As such, camp reports will be important to see which quarterback is jelling with which receiver. It won’t be a clean, easy comparison; one passer’s preference won’t lend the other receiver completely irrelevant. However, it could go a long way in deciding which of these two talented receivers to fade at the current ADP.
I can’t quite figure this situation out just yet.
The Miami Dolphins receiver corps
I can tell myself a story that every Dolphins wide receiver from Will Fuller to Jaylen Waddle to DeVante Parker is undervalued. The idea that Tua Tagovailoa can be a steady force after a rocky rookie year is appealing to me. Now, I just need to figure out who the young quarterback jives with.
Alignment is going to dictate much of that judgment. My initial read is that Parker is the X-receiver, Fuller is the flanker and Waddle is the slot. Tua’s game theoretically will overlap with the slot and flanker best. However, I’m open to camp either washing away my preconceived thoughts or serving to confirm my priors. Right now, I don’t have a true lean.