As the entire world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s effects on the world of professional sports continues to grow every day. All of the major North American major sports leagues have halted, postponed or canceled seasons already underway prior to the start of quarantines and social distancing. The NFL found itself in a unique situation in that their official league year had not yet begun. As far as team activities and on-field action are concerned, the NFL was in the slowest part of the year. As the pandemic continues to cause disruptions to normal business, NFL events and functions have been forced to adapt. Free agency season opened and, while many signings and roster moves took place, one has to wonder how many of these contracts will end up voided once teams are able to have players into their facilities for official physical testing. Offseason workouts and organized team activities have been delayed and players are being asked to isolate and train at home, rather than at team facilities. Despite the concern the league's General Managers have shown, the NFL still plans to hold the draft beginning on April 23, although it will not be the live spectacle fans have become accustomed to, rather it will be done remotely and with concern for the public’s safety at the forefront.
This entire situation has got me thinking, how will this abnormal and unprecedented situation affect the incoming 2020 rookie class, should the league find a way to begin their schedule as planned. Will these young players be starting at a disadvantage compared to previous years’ classes who were able to train properly and fully immerse in teams’ cultures through the offseason programs? Will teams be as self-assured in their selections, knowing they were unable to go through the usual interview and vetting process with these players? How confident will a coaching staff be to insert a young unproven player into a prominent early season role, not knowing how well they understand the playbook or nuances of the professional game?
How should we, as dynasty football players, adjust our own strategies and approaches to the offseason and roster construction with these factors in mind?
One position I think we should be taking a closer look at, and begin thinking a bit differently about is the 2020 running back class. One of the biggest factors in determining a rookie runner’s playing time, and thus fantasy appeal, is whether he is able to quickly pick up on pass protection assignments. Aside from fumbling issues, there is no quicker way to earn the distrust of a coaching staff than by blowing a blocking assignment and exposing your franchises quarterback to unnecessary, dangerous hits by defenders. The learning curve from the collegiate game to the professional one is a challenge for even some of the highest-drafted running back prospects in recent years. Think of highly-touted 2018 second round selection Ronald Jones, who has spent two seasons attempting to gain reps over 2016 undrafted free agent Peyton Barber in Tampa Bay. Or what about 2018 first rounder Rashaad Penny, who after two years has still been unable to unseat 2017 seventh rounder Chris Carson in the pecking order in Seattle? Jones specifically has struggled to unseat competition in part due to his well-documented troubles in pass protection. Penny has steadily improved to earn the trust of his coaches and seemed to finally be turning the corner in terms of usage before a season-ending injury suffered late in 2019.
One thing these players did have was the advantage of having access to the teams’ trainers, coaches, and facilities from the moment they were drafted. This is a luxury the incoming class will very likely not have. As cancelations and delays go deeper into the summer months, this incoming group will be missing out on vital training time to hone their games and prepare for the rigors of live game action. Some of the biggest names in this rookie runner crop may struggle out the gate, which in turn will lower their initial playing time and value to fantasy football players. Whether dynasty owners will allow concerns over the pass protection abilities of guys like Jonathan Taylor, D'Andre Swift, or Clyde Edwards-Helaire to affect their draft stock in upcoming rookie or startup drafts remains to be seen. These players still theoretically hold long-term value, especially when draft capital is eventually factored in. Still one has to wonder if players with fewer concerns regarding pass protection abilities such as J.K. Dobbins or Zach Moss will see an uptick in value as offseason activities continue to be postponed or canceled. Thus far, rookie ADP values do not reflect this line of thinking, though once again, draft capital has yet to be factored in.
If the NFL general managers shy away from players who are seen as “development projects” come Draft Day, it may be something to monitor as dynasty owners. At the very least, it’s a factor that should be kept in the back of your mind as you approach your offseason planning and ranking of the incoming prospect class, as well as how you value your rookie picks. It also brings into question whether investing in veterans or handcuffing these rookies is a wise investment this year more than in seasons past. Coaching staffs, for the most part, are interested in winning right away, due to the short patience cycle ownership has with them. A coach on the hot seat will do whatever is in the team’s and most importantly the quarterback’s best interest on game day. They are far more likely to give early season reps to established assets, than risk the gamble of playing an unproven rookie who has yet to show the ability or earned the trust to garner a more prominent role. 2020 rookies may find themselves facing a steeper uphill battle to playing time than previous seasons. Plan accordingly and you may find some startable value in rostering older veteran handcuffs to some of these well-regarded rookie selections. Utilize this knowledge in trade discussions post rookie drafts: if another owner in your league selects a player, try to trade them the handcuff or teammate of this rookie as they may now value them slightly higher. Success in fantasy sports often comes down to adaptability and being ahead of the crowd in regards to trends. If owners in your league are slow to react or factor in the potential for a sluggish start from the 2020 rookies, take advantage where you can.