Fantasy football: Injury updates translated to fit upcoming draft strategy

Jay Dieffenbach

The NFL training camp news began rolling out fast and furiously this week. It has left more than a few dominoes for fantasy football managers to consider.

As fantasy football draft season arrives, there are a few position-specific effects produced by injuries to starters.

What is the fantasy football fallout from the injury to Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers?

Darrell Henderson slots in as the next man up, and Rams coach Sean McVay generally leans toward a single-back focus rather than a sharing-the-load approach.

Make no mistake, McVay is thrilled to be able to replace Jared Goff with Matthew Stafford at the most important position in sports – quarterback. But McVay isn’t so pass-happy that he affects the league-average-or-better volume from the ground game.

The projections had Akers among the top 15-20 a month ago, and Henderson is now receiving similar respect. Don’t overlook Henderson – especially when considering the Rams’ likely offensive output.

Will Henderson make the most of an increased role?

In updated fantasy football projections as camps open, Henderson comes in just below the likes of the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs and Philadelphia Eagles’ Miles Sanders and just ahead of the Miami Dolphins’ Myles Gaskin and the Atlanta Falcons’ Mike Davis.

In the more optimistic rankings, including The Athletic (subscription required) running backs projections, he approaches Kansas City Chiefs second-year RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the Detroit Lions’ D’Andre Swift. And he is ahead of the Chicago Bears’ David Montgomery as well as Davis, Gaskin, Jacobs and Sanders.

McVay, when discussing the Akers injury and Henderson opportunity, noted how much Akers will be missed. But he talked up Henderson’s ability and experience, delivering optimism for concerned Rams backers.

Unfortunately for Cam, we’re going to miss him a lot and he’s meant a whole lot to this football team over the last year, and I think he will for years to come. Darrell Henderson has played really good football. This has never been an ability question for Darrell Henderson. This is, “All right, how do we find a strategic and a structured way to keep him available for all these games? And what does that workload look like?” Because he is the most established guy in that room.

Henderson should be expected to have the first, best chance to put up some meaningful numbers with the Rams.

What does the knee injury to New Orleans Saints standout Michael Thomas mean in the fantasy football world?

Saints coach Sean Payton mused – paraphrasing here – about why the heck Thomas’ ankle surgery wasn’t performed weeks ago. Now, Thomas is unlikely to see the field until about the halfway point of the season.

The Saints placed Thomas on the reserve/PUP (physically unable to perform) list on Tuesday. As a result, Thomas will miss at least six weeks of the regular season.

The Saints signed Chris Hogan, but the receiver group looks unlikely to have a major fantasy football impact.

The value among Saints pass catchers, however, still begins with Thomas. However, he is projected right around 40th on the receiver lists right now.

Fantasy value of Saints receivers hinges on QB competition between Hill, Winston

So many questions about this situation are still unanswered, starting with the team’s quarterback situation. There are major differences between Payton’s two options at QB.

If Taysom Hill is the expected starter, he’ll be a limited passer and a high-quality runner. That is what we have seen from him in the past few years’ worth of Payton’s experiment. He also hurts the volume for all Saints receivers.

If Jameis Winston wins the starting job, taking Thomas at wide receiver 38 or higher makes more sense. Winston throws a high number of picks but also throws a high number of passes – far more than Hill. That volume brings Thomas firmly into play as a viable fantasy football option when he returns.

If there is no indication that either wins the job outright, proceed with caution. Winston’s psyche could be affected and the offense could sputter.

The options for receiving targets are Tre’Quan Smith and tight end Adam Trautman. The passes have to go somewhere for the season’s first half, right? Draft boards should be adjusted to account for more opportunities here.

Generally, if Thomas slides even a little bit from the WR40 spot, he could provide a winning difference come fantasy football playoff time.

If the slide reaches the draft positions of the Miami Dolphins’ Will Fuller, the Denver Broncos’ Jerry Jeudy, the New York Jets’ Corey Davis, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Marvin Jones and the New York Giants’ Kenny Golladay, start your calculations. Another three or four receivers off the board and Thomas becomes worth a gamble.

What are other fantasy football injury concerns as the drafts approach?

Austin Ekeler, running back, Los Angeles Chargers

From a huge 2019 breakout season (almost 20 fantasy points per game) to an injury to only 10 games last season, Ekeler shouldn’t be seen as an RB on the decline. He scored more than 16 fantasy points per game in 2020 and has virtually no top-line competition on the Chargers in 2021. He’s set to hit the ground running – and catching – in the offense now run by Joe Lombardi (a Sean Payton disciple).

Amari Cooper, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

All the good feelings from quarterback Dak Prescott’s return are mitigated by uncertainty surrounding Cooper’s pesky ankle injury. He is out for right now, but it is not considered an issue that will keep him from entering the regular season as the No. 1 Dallas wideout. Still, it makes sense to look hard at taking the vast upside of teammate CeeDee Lamb just before Cooper.

Saquon Barkley, running back, Giants; Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, Broncos

These two are a package because of their similarities, ACL surgeries and shaky quarterback situations.

Barkley, with an average draft position of No. 6 overall, should be approached cautiously. Even if he’s close to 100 percent by Week 1, he will be treated like a priceless asset by the Giants. That means possible early-season limitations. With another subpar season from QB Daniel Jones, the Giants may find defenses doubling down on stopping Barkley. Strongly consider the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Jones and perhaps the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor as options if Barkley’s status remains uncertain.

Sutton was rocketing up fantasy football draft boards last season at the time of his injury. Now he is perceived as a legitimate bargain at his draft position. If you can look past the quarterbacking issues (Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater will fight to produce a middle-of-the-pack performance this season), Sutton could emerge as a top 20 fantasy receiver.

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