Uneasy fades: Joe Mixon and Royce Freeman leave me second-guessing

It’s important to take a stand. When your job is to forecast fantasy football and create content on it, it’s literally your job to take stands every day on a host of players.

However, it’s crucial to remember we’re going to be wrong so often in this business. Even the best analysts in the game maybe hit on 50 percent of their predictions. As such, while we should always speak with conviction in our analysis, we should always map out a path to how each forecast can go the opposite direction.

Throughout all the drafts I’ve done this offseason, there are a handful of players I’ve faded at cost. I’m comfortable with the vast majority of those predictions. However, these four players are the ones I’m the most worried will make me look incredibly dumb by season’s end or much sooner. Let’s look at why I’ve been passing on them and map out the path for my folly.

Joe Mixon (ADP – RB14)

Why I’m fading – Much of his slow rookie season can be chalked up to his poor surroundings but he was ordinary by any advanced statistical measure last season. Joe Mixon ranked 34th in average yards gained after defenders closed within one yard (via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats player tracking data), 43rd in Pro Football Focus’ elusiveness rating and outside the top-30 in evaded tackles per game, according to Player Profiler. It’s more than possible he’s just not as overwhelmingly talented as many believed he was coming out of college.

Opportunity and offensive efficiency are more important to fantasy running back success than theoretical talent, but Mixon has obstacles on both fronts. Giovani Bernard siphoned almost 150 touches last season and straight up outplayed Mixon in an identical situation. He’s not going away. The Bengals offense is bound to improve off their 32nd total yards ranking last year but it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if they are a bottom-15 unit in 2018. The preseason has been a tale of two ends of confirmation bias drive, with the offense looking dynamic in the first and third game and familiarly stuck in the mud the second. Mixon’s believers are putting an awful lot of stock in a veteran left tackle with injury concerns and a rookie center to revamp this porous offensive line.

Why I’m worried – If Mixon was a fourth-round pick instead of a second, he’d be a prime target for me, much like Kenyan Drake is now. The Bengals offense ran the fewest plays in the NFL last season and even a slight push to the league average would pump volume back toward all the skill position players. Mixon had unique ability as a receiver coming out of college and the Bengals have lined him up out wide on multiple plays this preseason. Passing game usage is the key to unlocking his upside and if the Bengals are entranced with his receiving ability, they could push Gio Bernard to the side.

Should Mixon access 75 to 80 targets this year while maintaining bell cow usage on the ground, he’ll make my RB22 ranking of him look shortsighted. Cincinnati becoming even the 15th to 20th best offense in the league would make it look painfully foolish, especially if he’s the talent his believers wish to sell you. The odds it all comes together are a bit longer than his price indicates. However, it’s all too obvious how wrong this could go for those like me who choose to pass.

Royce Freeman (ADP – RB18)

Why I’m fading – Royce Freeman struck me as a solid but unspectacular talent coming into the league but landed in a situation where he faced no formidable competition for the starting job. However, the Broncos don’t appear ready to quit Devontae Booker just yet. For all his inefficiencies as a runner, Booker some utility as a receiver and that will eat into Freeman’s theoretical floor. At least to start, Freeman looks like he’ll be an early-down committee back on a team that’s no lock to finish above .500.

Denver Broncos running back Royce Freeman has looked the part this preseason. (AP Photo/Mark Reis)

Vance Joseph has yet to name the rookie the starter despite his strong preseason. Fantasy owners are steadfast, however. Freeman went off the board at the 5.05 pick in the middle of August but his strong exhibition show saw him jump to a 3.08 ADP. His original price was already aggressive with the information available at that time. The preseason performances eased some of the worries and made his fifth-round price palatable. Unfortunately, those games upped the ante almost a full two rounds keeping Freeman as a full-fade.

Why I’m worried – While Freeman wasn’t a consensus strong talent as a prospect, several evaluators appreciated his game. So far through the preseason, he looks the part. Freeman averaged 4.0 yards after contact per attempt in his exhibition showings, seventh-highest among backs with at least 15 carries. He eludes defenders and looks like the steady runner that will keep an offense on schedule. If the team was smart, he’d be the unquestioned starter by now and operate in a similar fashion to Dalvin Cook during his early rookie year with the Vikings. If the Broncos experience a revival under Case Keenum, Freeman will be an every-week RB2. He goes off the board in a range of running backs with several landmines and missing out on him may be a case of being overly cautious.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (ADP – WR17)

Why I’m fading – It remains a mystery how you can carve out the 110 to 120 targets that JuJu Smith-Schuster will need to pay back his Top-20 WR ADP. Among the 100 receivers to finish as WR20 or higher in 0.5 PPR scoring since 2013, only 11 have done so with fewer than 110 targets. Smith-Schuster’s extrapolated 2017 target total would fall at a paltry 90.3.

With 2018 rookie deep threat looking poised to snag Martavis Bryant’s vacated target share and Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell’s workload likely untouchable, it’s a hard sell to project Smith-Schuster adding 20-plus targets to that pace. You’re banking on efficiency metrics that fluctuate year-over-year and don’t correlate to fantasy points like volume does.

Why I’m worried – JuJu Smith-Schuster is really good. He was productive at an extremely young age. The rookie ranked No. 10 in yards per route run (2.22) and No. 1 in quarterback passer rating when targeted (130.6), per Player Profiler. The Steelers found a perfect way to deploy him to accentuate his strengths as a big slot receiver that kept him away from press coverage.

Smith-Schuster is tethered to a top NFL offense with a stable quarterback coming off a dominant close to the 2017 season. If he’s truly rocketing up the charts and just getting started, perhaps he’s just too good to not get fed. He also has clear access to sky-high upside if Antonio Brown misses time. Skill matched with perfect deployment is my catnip with wide receivers, so it’s unsettling to be folding on Smith-Schuster in 2018.

Chris Hogan (WR21 ADP)

Why I’m fading – Unlike other players on this list, Chris Hogan was not a conscious fade over the course of drafts. It just kind of happened this way. Back when Hogan was a late fifth-round pick, there was plenty of appeal. Here as August ends, Hogan goes as the WR21 in the fourth-round and over players likely to lead their team targets like Allen Robinson, Marquise Goodwin and Brandin Cooks. While Hogan should get off to a hot start, he could easily fall to third in the New England target pecking order behind Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman when the latter returns from a suspension. If he’s priced as a clear WR2, he should come with a cleaner season-long target projection.

Why I’m worried – Hogan balled out to start the 2017 season with 70-plus yards and/or a touchdown in five of his first seven games. He’s also thrived in multiple roles with New England. Last year he chipped in as an interior receiver with Julian Edelman on IR, taking 40.8 percent of his snaps in the slot. In 2016, he was an outside vertical threat and led the NFL averaging 17.9 yards per catch. While New England’s running backs and Gronkowski should absorb significant volume, there’s no doubt Hogan is the most secure asset in the receiving corps heading into the season. Fading a Patriots player with a locked-in starting job is never comfortable.

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