Fantasy Football: The Case Against Evan Engram
This article is part of The Fantasy Court series, be sure to check out The Case For Evan Engram by Matthew Betz (@TheFantasyPT).
Check out where Andy, Mike, and Jason have Evan Engram projected in the Ultimate Draft Kit.
Today, we tackle the difficult case of Evan Engram’s questionable — nay, downright criminal — acquisition of a top-five ranking in fantasy football. The defendant’s spokesman, the esteemed Matthew Betz, will likely cite Engram’s incredible rookie season as evidence of his innocence. And I admit, the evidence appears strong: the man had 64 receptions for 722 yards and 6 touchdowns, truly revelatory stats for a first-year talent at the position.
Yet, 2017 in MetLife Stadium was much like London and Paris at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Namely, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope for Engram and his young, blossoming career, but it was also the winter of despair (read: “injury”) for everyone else in New York.
As such, if it pleases the court, I will attempt to show why Evan Engram’s suspect possession of 115 targets in 2017 was the direct result of his inflated fantasy production and why said production will dip considerably in 2018, robbing drafters of their championship dreams.
The Return of the King (and a Prince or Two)
As I’m sure you all remember, Odell Beckham Jr. — arguably the most talented young receiver in the game and certainly the best pass-catcher on the Giants — missed the final 11 games of 2017 with a fractured ankle. What you may not remember is that the next two names on New York’s opening depth chart also missed hefty chunks of the season. Sterling Shepard was officially inactive for five total games and less than 100% in several others, as he dealt with ankle, hamstring, and migraine issues throughout the year. Additionally, then-newly-acquired Brandon Marshall missed every game after Week 5, leaving Roger Lewis and Tavarres King (who only played eight games himself) as the WR target leaders behind Shepard.
If you just said, “Who?!” to the monikers of Lewis and King, you’re starting to get the picture. The Giants’ dearth of wideouts in 2017 reached truly epic proportions and was — I would contend — directly responsible for the astronomical 115 targets accrued by Evan Engram. For reference, that was the second-most in the league, behind only Pro Bowl shoo-in Travis Kelce.
Now, OBJ will return to a field he unquestionably dominates. The super-elite wideout had totaled no fewer than 130 targets in a season before last year — and the 130 was in his 12-game rookie season. He’s a lock for 150-160 targets, or around double the target count of any WRs playing alongside Engram last season.
We haven’t yet mentioned the touchdowns. Beckham’s yearly 16-game pace has been about 13 receiving touchdowns … and he tied for the most among Giants’ wideouts last year with 3 TDs in four games. There will be a lot more competition in the red zone with OBJ on the field, which could easily knock a couple scores off Engram’s total.
Throw in a healthy Shepard entering his third season in the NFL, and you may have another guy capable of 110-plus targets and several scores. We’re already running out of room for Engram to repeat his 2017 target-hoggery and corresponding fantasy brilliance.
While the WR3 position is still less than impressive (New York only added Cody Latimer and Russell Shepard in the offseason), there is another pass-catcher entering the fold that could have a big impact on Engram’s prospects.
A New Hope
Unless you just came back to fantasy football today, you’ve probably heard of Saquon Barkley. Barkley was the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft this spring and enters the league with more hype and expectation than any rookie running back since Ezekiel Elliott — and possibly more. I won’t go into the justifications for the hype here, but check out Corey Evans’ Rookie Profile and my own mini-breakdown of Barkley’s landing spot. Suffice it to say, the young man can play football.
So how does this affect Evan Engram, a tight end? Funny you should ask! In fact, it’s in more ways than one.
First, if it isn’t obvious, Barkley is the heralded pass-catcher I referenced above. With 102 receptions in three college seasons, the Penn State product is potentially a Le’Veon-Bell-level receiving talent. Where the shell of Shane Vereen managed to lead NYG backs in targets (53) and receptions (44) last year, Barkley figures to step in and explode. If you have access to the Ultimate Draft Kit, you can find Andy, Mike, and Jason’s projections for Barkley (and all other relevant fantasy players) — all three have the rookie down for between 60 to 69 receptions. (If you don’t have the UDK, go get it, I’ll wait). Personally, I think he could top 85 targets and 70 receptions, but whatever the exact number, he will snag a hefty share of Eli Manning‘s pass attempts in 2018.
Not only that, a chunk of those targets are likely to be just the sort of safety-valve opportunities that Engram thrived on in 2017. Engram’s aDOT (average depth of target) last year was a middling 8.8 yards, lower than Gronk and Kelce, veterans Greg Olsen and Delanie Walker, and fellow rookies O.J. Howard and David Njoku. If Manning needs a reliable target when the line breaks down, Engram could now be the fourth read behind OBJ, Barkley, and even Shepard, instead of the first.
The second big reason for concern is red zone usage. The one place Engram could have potentially improved on his 2017 numbers, to make up for the expected drop in targets, would be touchdowns. He had a respectable six scores as a rookie, but all of them came on red zone targets and five of them came on plays inside the 10-yard line. Expect the Giants to look to Barkley often in these critical situations (not to mention veteran thumper Jonathan Stewart), further limiting Engram’s upside in fantasy.
Back to the Future (of Game Scripts)
Okay, I’m stretching the awesome-movie-series-headings bit to the breaking point, but hear me out here. The New York Giants have not had a running back break 225 carries since Ahmad Bradshaw did it in 2010. They haven’t topped 405 rushing attempts as a team since 2014 — league average is around 425. Last year, in Engram’s voluminous rookie season, they led the NFL in pass attempts with 608.
It certainly didn’t help that their defense ranked 31st in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed in 2017. They were truly atrocious, with down years from edge defender Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and inconsistency from a former top-10 pick, cornerback Eli Apple. Still, they have some highly talented players and an overall rush defense and secondary that Pro Football Focus ranks in the top half of the league (14th and 15th respectively). It won’t take much to improve on last year’s debacle.
Combine a potential defensive improvement with a bolstered offensive line (including LT Nate Solder and rookie LG Will Hernandez) and the addition of Saquon Barkley, and you’re looking at a team in far fewer negative game scripts than they saw in 2017 (when they went 3-13). Heck, Jason Moore himself considers them a dark-horse Super Bowl contender! Theoretically, all of that means fewer pass attempts, which means that Engram’s already-reduced target share will translate to even less raw production. Especially with Eli Manning on the waning side of his long and semi-illustrious career, it would not be surprising to see the team’s pass attempts to drop by close to 100 in 2018.
Let me be clear, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I do not intend to besmirch Evan Engram’s talent or personal character, lest I open myself to a countersuit for defamation and/or libel. The young man is an extremely gifted football player with a bright future. However, I refuse to allow Engram’s 2017 impersonation of an elite, target-hogging tight end to adversely affect his draft price in 2018. Over the past five years, top-five tight ends in fantasy have averaged a cool 120 targets per season. To truly reach a stratosphere worthy of the TE5 ranking and 6th-round ADP to which Engram currently holds the claim, he would likely need to improve on his 2017 production.
Simply put, it’s not happening this season. Engram’s target count will drop well into the double-digits, and even if he improves on very poor 2017 efficiencies, that won’t be enough to break the top five. Engram will be a TE1, but I would take seven tight ends ahead of him in drafts (including Jimmy Graham, Delanie Walker, and Trey Burton), and wouldn’t even sniff him until the 8th round. Sadly, you will never get him at that price, and will instead be forced to roster Engram over upside RBs like Rex Burkhead and Marshawn Lynch or strong WR2 candidates like Sammy Watkins and Julian Edelman. Steer clear Foot Clan, or end up sniffling your way through the loser’s bracket when fantasy playoffs roll around.