Well, time to stop chuckling at the Rams WRs – at least for this year.
In a bold move Friday, L.A. sent CB E.J. Gaines and a 2nd-round pick to Buffalo for 1 of the league’s more talented wideouts. Sammy Watkins obviously delivers a huge upgrade to his new team’s WR corps while leaving a gaping, playmaker-shaped hole back in Buffalo.
But what does the move mean for fantasy? Unfortunately, the best answer is that no one really knows.
In many cases, we can look to a variety of knowns and generate reasonable expectations. But this particular situation features a truly unhealthy portion of unknowns.
- Is Jared Goff any good?
- What will Sean McVay’s offense look like?
- What does 16 games of Watkins even look like?
- What kind of performance and volume can we expect from and for the rest of the Rams’ skill guys?
Let’s start under center, where Goff was simply putrid as a rookie. Had he attempted enough passes to qualify, Goff would have ranked:
- 30th in completion rate (54.6%)
- last in TD rate (2.4%)
- tied for 28th in INT rate (with then-teammate Case Keenum, at 3.4%)
- 0.5 behind last-place Brock Osweiler in yards per attempt (5.3)
He did get sacked enough to qualify for last among QBs in sack rate. (Good sign.) Goff also checked in dead last in ESPN’s QBR and every efficiency metric tracked by Football Outsiders. Pro Football Focus graded him 33rd among 34 qualifying QBs and charted a “turnover-worthy” throw on 4.74% of Goff’s attempts, 25th among 32 QBs.
The good news: Goff can only go up from there.
The Rams moved up to draft him 1st overall just a year ago, so we’re clearly not talking about a guy who just can’t hack it physically.
According to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, Goff did complete a solid 43.8% of his deep passes in his final season at Cal. And the Rams QB earned praise for his poise when facing pocket pressure.
The former point will certainly help him leverage Watkins’ skills if Goff can carry it over. The latter will come in handy behind a Rams line that needs to prove it’s better after a horrid 2016. Watkins’ arrival could also help on that front by giving Goff an outlet that could truly torture defenses in “hot-read” situations against blitzes.
Let’s assume that Goff will be at least a little better than he was last year – perhaps significantly better – but not as good for Watkins as Tyrod Taylor would have been.
Watkins undeniably helps Goff, but we're not close to calling the Rams QB a 2017 fantasy factor.
The surrounding cast
The Rams signed former Bills WR Robert Woods in free agency this offseason. They also drafted WR Cooper Kupp in Round 3 and WR Josh Reynolds in Round 4, on top of 2nd-round TE Gerald Everett.
That crew joins a pass offense that watched last year’s top receiver, Kenny Britt, leave in free agency. But Tavon Austin returns, along with 2016 rookies WR Mike Thomas, WR Pharoh Cooper and TE Tyler Higbee – none of whom caught more than 14 passes last year.
Bet on Thomas and Cooper remaining irrelevant, and Reynolds to start his Rams career buried on the depth chart. The TEs threaten to cannibalize any value either might hope to discover in a common-sized fantasy league. The starting-wideout picture gets interesting, though.
McVay has said he wants to turn the speedy Austin into more of a deep threat and reportedly had him running such routes from an outside spot early in training camp before a hamstring issue took him off the field for a while. Austin appears headed for a lower-volume role along those lines.
That would clear the way for Kupp to run from the slot, where his talents fit well. A reliable set of hands in the middle would be good for Goff and the offense in general. The arrivals of Watkins and Woods will make consistent targets tough to find, though. Don’t expect much fantasy impact from Kupp unless 1 of the outside starters gets hurt.
McVay spent the past 3 years as the Washington OC, albeit under offensive-minded HC Jay Gruden. So how much of the offense was actually his? We’ll find out in his 1st season away.
From a sheer attempts standpoint, Washington went from 9th in the league in passes and 13th in rushes in 2013 – Mike Shanahan’s final season – to the following finishes the past 3 years:
- 18th, 20th and 7th in passing attempts
- 21st, 14th and 27th in rushing attempts
In its heaviest passing season, Washington ranked just 8th most pass-heavy in the league last year. McVay’s new team has a much better RB in Todd Gurley than were any of the guys his old team trotted out in 2016 (or the 2 seasons prior for that matter). Kirk Cousins attempted 543 and 606 passes in his 2 starting campaigns under McVay.
Last year’s Rams, meanwhile, sported the 10th most pass-heavy play selection – even with the Keenum-Goff split at QB. As long as these Rams are any better than last year’s 4-12 version – and they should be – it seems fair to assume that McVay would like to stay closer to the 540-550 range of attempts. We have Goff projected for 548 throws, 17th among QBs we ranked. That’s nearly 3 more passes per game than we have for Tyrod Taylor.
More volume is always good for a player’s fantasy value, and Watkins has been an efficient yardage collector when healthy over his 3 seasons. Only 9 players who drew 50+ targets have posted more yards per catch since the start of 2014 than Watkins (16.1). He ranks 19th among WRs in non-PPR fantasy points per target over his 3 seasons.
Watkins delivered a top-10 scoring average across formats in 2015, when Taylor arrived, scoring 9 TDs among 60 catches over 13 games. He’d obviously need Goff to immediately morph into at least a strong deep passer to approach that.
As a 2014 rookie, Watkins ranked 30th in non-PPR points per game and 34th in PPR – pretty solid when you consider that Kyle Orton and E.J. Manuel were his QBs.
Of course, last year found injury zapping Watkins’ fantasy appeal. He missed half the year, caught 4+ passes only 4 times and finished just 2 games with more than 54 yards.
Watkins will obviously be the Rams’ best wideout, though. And he joins a team that allowed Kenny Britt to be a surprise fantasy factor last season. Britt finished 9 of his 15 weeks among the top 36 PPR wideouts, and 3 of his 4 games with 10+ targets came after Goff entered the lineup.
Britt finished last season 28th among PPR wideouts, 24th in non-PPR. But his numbers declined after Goff took over for Keenum. Despite climbing from 7.1 targets per game with Keenum to 7.8 with Goff, Britt endured these declines:
- 4.9 receptions per game to 4.0
- 77 yards per game to 51.5
- 14.5 PPR points per game to 11.2
That last category is key: 14.5 PPR points per game would have tied for 15th among wideouts last season; 11.2 would have ranked 50th.
Watkins has settled in at 24th among non-PPR wideouts in our initial rankings update following the trades, 26th in PPR. His 9.03 non-PPR points per game (with 2 games shaved off his total for injury risk) rank 19th. That seems pretty close to his 2017 ceiling.
Watkins' greatest fantasy impact might be in helping to open up space for Todd Gurley to run. That said, the move is not enough to change our projection for Gurley.