Juggernaut Index, No. 17: Washington retools around Kirk Cousins

So far, the Gruden-Cousins era has been good to the fantasy community. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Another year, another Kirk Cousins contract kerfuffle. Cousins will be the first NFL quarterback to play consecutive seasons on the franchise tag, having not yet agreed to a long-term deal with Washington. Contract offers have been made; trade rumors have percolated. Cousins may or may not want to be in Washington beyond the current season, and the team may or may not want him. But here’s what we know for sure: Cousins has been damn good for basically a season and a half.

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Over Cousins’ last 26 regular season games, he’s averaged 294.7 yards per week and 8.32 per attempt while completing 68.8 percent of his throws. He’s tossed 48 touchdown passes and just 15 interceptions, plus he’s rushed for eight scores. He ranked third in the league last season in both passing yards (4917) and Y/A (8.1), and he finished seventh in passer rating (97.2). At this stage, it’s tough to argue that he isn’t an upper-tier NFL quarterback. For fantasy purposes, he’s been a top-10 QB in back-to-back seasons, finishing fifth last year and eighth in 2015.

If you need a reason to worry about Cousins entering 2017, look to his supporting cast. Continuity is a big deal in the NFL, and it’s lacking in Washington’s offense. Cousins has a new offensive coordinator this season, with QB coach Matt Cavanaugh taking over for Sean McVay. Head coach Jay Gruden will resume play-calling duties after ceding that responsibility to McVay two years ago. Additionally, Washington lost its two leading receivers from last season, as Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson both relocated via free agency. Those two combined for 135 catches and 2046 yards on 216 targets last year.

These are not small losses. Fantasy football is a plug-and-play game, but the real-life version is somewhat more complicated. Washington’s offensive line returns intact, which certainly helps. This team also made a splashy (and curiously cheap) addition to its receiving corps, signing one of last season’s more impressive breakout players.

Terrelle Pryor, now paired with a legit quarterback

Pryor had a remarkable year for Cleveland in 2016, considering the team context. Seven different players attempted passes for the Browns last season (including Pryor himself) and the team averaged just 204.0 passing yards per game, ranking No. 28 in the league. Despite dealing with a parade of sketching passers — RGIII, McCown, Whitehurst, et al. — Pryor somehow finished with 77 catches for 1007 yards on 140 targets. Cleveland was his fifth NFL stop, and things had finally fallen into place.

And then the Browns didn’t sign him to a long-term deal, or tag him. Pryor was linked to various teams in free agency and reportedly received multi-year offers, but he ultimately chose to sign a short-term prove-it deal in Washington (one year, $6 million plus incentives). After the departures of both Garcon and D-Jax, Washington obviously had a serious need for receiving help. Pryor has upgraded his QB situation in a massive way, and he remains in line for a huge target total. Assuming he can remain healthy, he’s put himself in a perfect situation to get paid in 2018.

Cousins seems plenty excited about Pryor’s potential in Washington:

“Terrelle [Pryor] is really talented running down the field. I’ve been very impressed with his down-the-field skills with his speed. I think being such a long strider, he can really cover ground when it doesn’t look like he is. I want to throw to him every chance I get on those deeper routes.”

Don’t bet against Pryor improving on last year’s numbers. He’s not exactly cheap at the draft table (ADP 46.7, WR20), but it’s not crazy to hope for a top-12 positional finish. Four members of the Yahoo fantasy crew like Pryor to outperform his draft position, and no one slots him outside the top-25 WRs. (Brad Evans ranks Pryor as if he worked for Rosenhaus Sports, not for Yahoo.) Pryor is a player to target, an explosive talent with a promising setup.

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Terrelle Pryor gets most of the buzz, but Jamison Crowder could end up with most of the catches. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Third-year receiver Jamison Crowder isn’t half as buzzy as Pryor in fantasy circles, but he’s a strong candidate to lead his team in receptions in 2017. Crowder caught 67 balls for 847 yards and seven spikes last season on just 97 targets. He’ll rarely leave the field this year, playing both outside and inside. He caught all seven of his touchdowns from the slot last season. He’s smallish (5-foot-8), but he’s slippery, reliable, and he’s earned the full trust of his quarterback. Despite his size, Crowder actually led all Washington receivers in red-zone targets (17) in 2016. It’s not at all unreasonable to forecast a 90-catch season from Crowder. Don’t sleep on him.

Josh Doctson is a critical swing player for Washington in his second pro season. He was fantastic at the collegiate level, finishing his TCU career with back-to-back 1000-yard seasons in which he caught double-digit TDs. He has size, speed and elite leaping ability (41-inch vertical). Doctson profiles as a dangerous red-zone weapon, but he barely saw the field as a rookie, struggling with persistent Achilles and foot issues. The early camp reports have been encouraging…

…so we’ll see if Doctson can make noise during preseason play. He’ll compete with Ryan Grant for third receiver duties; it’s a battle you’d like to think a former first-rounder would easily win. Doctson is worth a late flier in deeper fantasy formats, but he’s no great threat to either Pryor or Crowder.

Tight end Jordan Reed wasted no time this summer doing what he does best: suffering injuries. He opened camp on the PUP list due to toe and ankle issues. The team has given us no reason to think these latest injuries are particularly worrisome, so there’s no obvious reason to downgrade him just yet. Reed has a history of concussions and hamstring trouble, and he’s missed 18 games over four seasons. No reasonable fantasy owner expects 16 healthy weeks from Reed, but he’s a monster when he’s right. He’s just a year removed from an 87-catch, 11-touchdown campaign. Gruden said during the offseason that the team’s offense “runs through” Reed, so that’s a pretty solid endorsement. Reed remains one of the few tight ends with 1000-yard, 10-TD potential. We just have to hope that he’ll be healthy in December, when fantasy titles are decided.

We have a backfield battle in Washington

Perhaps this will end up in a committee, as so many backfields do. Rob Kelley had a fair season in 2016 after taking over lead back duties from a fumbly Matt Jones in October. Kelley rushed for 704 yards and six scores on 168 carries, though he faded late in the year, averaging just 3.3 YPC over his final six games. He was little more than an emergency option in the passing game, catching only 12 balls on 18 targets. Kelley reportedly made a greater commitment to nutrition and fitness during the offseason, shedding body fat. So he’s a proud member of the best-shape-of-his-life club. He costs so little in drafts (ADP 85.9) and should receive at least a half-share of the backfield workload. Washington’s line was a solid run-blocking unit last season, which of course helps in no small way.

Samaje Perine has a shot at a significant role in his first season. (Getty Images)

Oklahoma rookie Samaje Perine should immediately challenge Kelley for snaps and touches. At 230-plus pounds, Perine is an absolute hammer of a runner. He doesn’t earn many style points, but he proved almost impossible to arm-tackle at the collegiate level (not that anyone tackles well in the Big 12). He averaged 1374 rushing yards per season and 6.0 YPC in his Sooners career, scoring 51 touchdowns over three years. Perine and Joe Mixon formed a devastating two-man committee last season; he and Kelley should be an effective pair for Washington in 2017. It’s more a thunder-and-thunder combo than thunder-and-lightning, but it can still work. Perine generally slips outside the top-100 overall fantasy picks, so drafting him is an inexpensive way to get a share of a quality offense.

Like Kelley, Perine hasn’t functioned as a high-volume receiving back, so we can expect Chris Thompson to retain his PPR value. He caught a career-high 49 passes last season and gained 705 scrimmage yards. He delivered less than 50 total yards in 13 of 16 games, so we’re not talking about a serious asset for standard league players. But in deeper PPR formats, he’s a fair flex/bench option.

This team’s D is for streamers only.

Washington’s defense ranked in the league’s bottom-third against both the run and pass last season, and finished only middle-of-the-pack in total takeaways (21). Understandably, this team used four of its first five draft picks on defensive players, a haul that included a pair of potential impact athletes from Alabama (DT Jonathan Allen and LB Ryan Anderson). So that works. Still, we shouldn’t view this D as anything more than a streaming option in standard fantasy leagues. Washington’s early schedule features potentially friendly matchups against the Eagles, Rams and Niners, so this group may prove useful in September and October.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 24.8 (12)
Pass YPG – 297.4 (2)
Rush YPG – 106.0 (21)
Yards per play – 6.4 (2)
Plays per game – 63.1 (21)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo, 21) Philadelphia, 20) Miami, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington