El-Busto: What went wrong with Mariota, Cooper, other fantasy flops

Marcus Mariota ran out of answers Saturday night at New England (AP)

There are so many ways to ruin a good fantasy plan, derail a promising fantasy season. The apple of your eye in the summer can easily turn into the bane of your existence during the season. Today, we talk about 10 of those busts, hot commodities who fizzled out. Settle in, let’s see how we can take a sad song and (maybe) make it better.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans

The Setup: Big things were expected of Mariota as he entered Year 3. The Titans added a buzzy rookie wideout (Corey Davis) and an established veteran target (Eric Decker), and Mariota was coming off a snappy sophomore year. Maybe this Exotic Smashmouth thing could have staying power. Mariota was bid up aggressively in Yahoo leagues, drafted as the QB6.

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What Went Wrong: Mariota suffered a hamstring injury in Week 4 — ironically, on a day he scored two rushing touchdowns — and although it cost him just one start, he was clearly tentative with his scrambling after the return. The Titans seemed to prefer him running less, and a stationary Mariota didn’t do much as a fantasy passer (13 TDs, 15 INTs, a rating 12 percent under the league average). The supporting cast wasn’t much help — Davis had a washout rookie year, marred by injuries, while DeMarco Murray and Decker both had possible cliff seasons. Alas, Mariota’s rushing chops returned when it was too late for fantasy owners — he ran for 143 yards in Weeks 17-19 (including two playoff games), and also collected five touchdown passes (one, improbably, to himself).

Forward Spin: Tennessee snuck into the playoffs in Week 17, which might be a Pyrrhic victory — it all but ensures Mike Mularkey, coach on the hot seat, is likely to return for 2018. Mularkey has been unable to start the ignition on Mariota’s career, and this deep into the proceedings, we have to be skeptical as to if it will ever happen. And then there’s the matter of the mobility — if Mariota can’t fully utilize his pocket scrambling (for fear of injury), how much of his upside is getting flushed down the toilet? I’ll find it a lot easier to talk myself into Mariota when he’s on his second coaching staff; we can revisit this conversation when that’s in motion.

Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders

The Setup: Cooper was a second-round staple in most drafts, coming off a WR13 finish and entering his age-23 season. Injuries cost Cooper a couple of games and played a role in his 48-680-7 disappointment, but perhaps the most soul-crushing part of his fantasy year was when he produced. Cooper’s monster Thursday game against the Chiefs in Week 7 (11-210-2) — the second-best WR performance of the year — ensured that fantasy owners wouldn’t dare bench him in the ensuing weeks, when he became a pumpkin again. Cooper managed just 16 catches for 209 yards over the next six games, and his 3-115-1 blowup in Week 17 was of little fantasy value in most leagues.

What Went Wrong: Most of the Oakland offense crashed in 2017, as the team fell off by 115 points — and six wins — from the previous season. Derek Carr went from borderline MVP candidate to a below-average starter; the stout offensive line fell apart; Michael Crabtree was inconsistent; Marshawn Lynch returned to the NFL but made a tepid impact. Was Cooper more injured than he let on? Did his confidence get crushed in the middle of the team’s slump? Could anyone have taken off with the struggling Carr? This is one case where all we have is wild guesses, no definitive leads.

The Raiders immediately cleaned house after the year, firing the coaching staff and luring Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth.

Forward Spin: Although we don’t have clear attribution on Cooper’s lost year, he has an interesting pedigree worth betting on. He was the fourth overall pick in his 2015 draft class, and he came into the league at a tender age — he doesn’t turn 24 until June. I maintain a fair amount of skepticism on Gruden’s return to coaching, but just having a different voice in Cooper’s ear could be a good thing. And if Cooper winds up getting more slot work (as our friend Matt Kelley was talking about a few days ago), all the better. This is the type of story I can see myself buying into next summer.

[Early position previews for 2018: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington

The Setup: Pryor signed a one-year deal with Washington and buzz followed; he crept up to WR13 in Yahoo ADP. The new kid in town dropped almost everything in preseason, then had a drop-filled opening month. Pryor was buried on Jay Gruden’s depth chart after about five weeks, then injuries took over; Pryor had an ankle scope in November and missed the second half of the year. Washington received a scant 20-240-1 line for Pryor’s nine games.

What Went Wrong: Maybe it was a mistake to attach an expectant fantasy price on a converted receiver who had just one complete year of starting experience at the position. Banking on wideouts who change teams is often a risky proposition, though it’s also worth noting Gruden lost confidence in Pryor rather quickly.

Forward Spin: Pryor became a trendy pick in August, and that was quickly baked into his ADP. He was drafted, on average, ahead of DeAndre Hopkins, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and Keenan Allen in fantasy leagues. Pryor is still capable of being interesting again, but he turns 29 in June — if something is going to pop, it needs to happen quickly. Maybe Gruden was the wrong coach for him, or Washington the wrong fit. I’ll try to be open minded on Pryor next year, but only if the fresh ADP gives me a notable discount.

Is the Rodgers/Nelson connection still worth a big investment? (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers

The Setup: Touchdowns are the ultimate fantasy deodorant, and Nelson had plenty of aerosol to go around when the year opened — he spiked six times in the opening five games, making up for a mediocre 19-230 line. But Aaron Rodgers was injured in Week 6, and that instantly eliminated Nelson’s fantasy value. Nelson caught just 25 of 44 targets in the eight Brett Huntley starts, for a piddly 164 yards and zero touchdowns. Nelson’s YPC also cratered, dropping to 9.09 for the season (keep in mind, his career mark is 14.3).

What Went Wrong: Wide receiver is a young man’s position in the NFL, and Nelson clearly has lost a step, perhaps two, at age 32. It’s also telling that Davante Adams found a way to survive the Hundley portion of the year, while Nelson wound up on the side of a milk carton. The Packers also signed Adams to a speedy contract extension in December, making it clear who their No. 1 target is.

Forward Spin: If you fully accept that Adams is the No. 1 guy in Green Bay, no matter the quarterback, you’ll approach Nelson with trepidation next summer. That’s my preliminary plan. Listen to the money talk, and more importantly, trust the stopwatch.

Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots

The Setup: Expected to be the goal-line kingpin, Gillislee crept into the Round 4-6 area by the end of the summer. He finished outside the Top 50 at the position, the least important of four New England running backs.

What Went Wrong: Gillislee’s YPC fell by two yards from two previous season, and he was targeted just once all year (consistent with Buffalo usage). Foot and hamstring problems came about, and by the time he returned, Dion Lewis had a hammerlock on the primary backfield job. Gillislee was mediocre in short-yardage work, though he did collect four short scores in opening two weeks.

Forward Spin: I don’t want to hear any bellyaching about Bill Belichick usage patterns, or Josh McDaniels usage patterns (he is the offensive coordinator, after all). The Patriots are in favor of talent and reliability, like anyone else. LeGarrette Blount finished seventh on the RB board last year (despite being a zero in the passing game, like Gillislee) and Dion Lewis turned into an electric league winner in the second half of 2017. The Patriots have this reputation of a team that screws with usage for the sake of being tricky, but they’re merely trying to win matchups, like anyone else. And for two straight years, they’ve found a way to do that with their backs.

Gillislee is not an example of the Patriots being random with usage, he’s an example of a player benching himself with mediocre play. Gillislee’s lack of passing chops could have been overcome if he slid into the Blount role — and it was reasonable to think that was possible — but we also had to consider that New England prioritized the Rex Burkhead acquisition, and Lewis and James White were still around. Perhaps Gillislee was going to mark his short-yardage territory, but the team always had plenty of alternatives — and versatility — if the road got bumpy. I’m always going to be intrigued by fantasy backs tied to good offenses, even if it’s starting from a committee, but maybe the best New England takeaway is to make your bets on the cheaper guys, not on the expectantly-priced players.

What Went Wrong — The easy answers:

Jordan Reed: Came in with an injury-risk rep, then had his worst injury season. Tight end has always been a collision position. I wouldn’t be shocked if Reed retired at some point in 2018.

Martavis Bryant: Here’s a case of an ADP that priced in an expected outcome at the high end of his range. Does Bryant want to be great? JuJu Smith-Schuster was more NFL-ready than anyone had reason to suspect, especially given he just turned 21.

Andrew Luck: Once the Colts started to talk about Luck as no sure thing for Week 1, it was obvious to bail. There are too many paths to fantasy production at the QB position — you can get it at any tier, and consistently on the free-agent wire. You miss the subway, just wait for another car in 10 minutes.

It’s might be getting better slowly, but one consistent fantasy-football leak is the persistent optimism thrown at players coming off long-term injuries. I’ve kept this healthy skepticism for my two decades in the game, and rarely regretted it.

Dez Bryant: Age is catching up to him. Bryant was never was a separation king, now he can hardly separate at all. He’s never had a great connection with Dak Prescott. A difficult slate of opponents didn’t help, but in Dez’s prime, he’d likely overcome that. Not any longer.

DeVante Parker: Jay Cutler clicked with Jarvis Landry, not Parker. You also have to wonder if Parker truly wants to be great, if he’s fully invested in making the most out of his talent. I don’t care what kind of Parker propaganda we get in the spring and summer, I refuse to draft him with a proactive tilt next summer. He’ll have to prove something to me, and if I miss out, I miss out. His makeup was in question back in his combine class, and the questions haven’t gone away.

Depending on your stomach for this type of depressing content, this could be a recurring series during the offseason. The Buccaneers might need their entire miniseries. Share all of your feedback, boom or bust, on Twitter: @scott_pianowski

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